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Planning for Articulation: One Principal’s Experience

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Interview with Ursina Swanson, Principal, Park Spanish Immersion, St. Louis Park, MN


ACIE Staff: Tell us a little bit about the elementary program.

Ursina Swanson: We’re a K-6 Spanish full immersion school and we’re in our 7th year. We have 500 kids at a time here in grades K through 6. We do all our subject areas in Spanish starting English in the second half of second grade. The first half of second grade we teach reading to those students who aren’t readers and then we start in the second half of second grade with English instruction three times a week for 40 minutes. We try to have a very intentional view of delivering the Spanish as much as we can in, not just the in classrooms, but in the halls, in the social language in the cafeteria, whenever possible.

ACIE: Let’s go on then and talk about the continuation program. Where will it be and when is it going to be starting?

Swanson: We are the only immersion program in the district but the junior high years, grade 7 and 8 in this district, will be at the junior high. They’ll have Spanish Language Arts and Social Studies taught in Spanish. The rest of the day they’ll be part of a team.

ACIE: Will they be mixed in with other kids?

Swanson: They will be with other kids except for the two Spanish immersion classes. When the task force worked on the junior high piece they were hoping for far more than just two courses out of the day. Ultimately, that wasn’t possible. We have budget cuts in this district and it was felt that these kids already had so much language compared to the other students in the district for whom Spanish instruction was cut out of the elementary schools a couple years ago due to budget cuts. Our students are truly the only ones who have had any foreign language. A lot of people felt they’ve had so much already that they weren’t going to give them another half day in Spanish in the junior high years. Obviously, as an immersion educator, I find that is really too bad. Two courses out of a 7-period day is barely enough to maintain your language. And so, my hope is that we start this way and as people become more knowledgeable about what immersion means and what we need to do, they will open up the discussion again so that we can bring it to at least three classes out of that 7-period day.

ACIE: How many kids from the 6th grade will be going on into that program then?

Swanson: I think most of them will. We only started with 60 kids. We have 47 of those 60 left seven years later, which I think is good.

ACIE: Will students need to enroll in all the immersion courses?

Swanson: Yes, very definitely. You can’t choose to do Language Arts and nothing else. We have decided we can’t run that many different kinds of individualized programs. You’re either part of the immersion program or you’re not.

ACIE: Can you describe the process you went through to develop a plan for the continuation program in the middle school?

Swanson: It started when the first group of parents visited Edina Valley View Middle school when their kids were only in 2nd or 3rd grade, I think. In some sense we maybe had too much time because the discussions went on almost too long rather than having a set amount of time and getting your work done and coming to a decision. I think it allowed in some sense a lot of community dialogue with people who weren’t really familiar with immersion and what immersion needed. When I got here, we started a task force right away with the junior high principal and met every month for 2 1/2 years. We looked at the research, looked at other schools, had other school principals come and talk to the group, looked at curriculum, looked at hiring, I mean, the gamut. We went through everything.

ACIE: If 2 1/2 years was too long, what do you think would be optimal?

Swanson: About a year and a half. Because I think we should learn from the schools that have done it before. We do not, each district, need to reinvent the wheel. Yes, you need to bring a task force along, you do need to educate them and they need to do that first hand, not second hand. But I think we also need to be content when another school tells us, "This is what we did, this is what I wouldn’t do, this is what I would do," and trust it.

ACIE: ...and so people got involved who weren’t necessarily...

Swanson: ...knowledgeable. I brought people from this school and the junior high principal enlisted people from his school. Obviously, the people from this school, staff and parents, had a real vested interest. They were very dedicated, as immersion parents are. They never missed a meeting, they did their homework, their subcommittees did the work, they provided everybody with the research.

The junior high group was not strong enough. Most importantly, key decision makers weren’t on the task force. I think one of the lessons learned is very definitely that [the task force] needs to be more top heavy from the junior high than from the elementary site and it needs to have the decision makers in on it from the beginning. They need to be committed to it, not just the principal and two people. The site council has to be represented on the task force, the PTO, staff from each grade level and subject area. For some of them I think it was even, "I hope it doesn’t happen. I’m going to lose my job if these people come here." So that was a weak link and I think that when it came down to making a decision, then people surfaced and said , "We don’t want this or they don’t need any more. We are not continuing a program for people who have been advantaged all along."

ACIE: Who were the people then that came along to begin with? The principal?

Swanson: The principal and an assistant and a dean to begin with, but it should have been a broader group from the junior high. The expectation should have been put out there, you cannot miss this, this is something you really need to commit to. It ended up being a Park Spanish Immersion (PSI) task force because, yes, we were very eager that this would happen. Can you just see that dichotomy? It took me a little while to figure out who the players were.

ACIE: Presumably though, there had to be a decision from higher up that this dialogue would even take place between these two schools.

Swanson: Yes, I wanted it to get started and [the junior high principal] knew it was coming. He had foresight, and he and I went to the superintendent and we said, "What is your mind on this? We are not going to spend 2 1/2 years in a task force and you will say, ‘I never wanted this.’ We need to have a green light..." and she recognized that this is something that needs to go on, that parents would never abide that this stop at 6th grade.

ACIE: Was it something that had to go past the school board then?

Swanson: You know, at that point it didn’t. We went to the school board with our task force recommendations at the end of the 2 1/2 years. And, I think typically a school board will look to their superintendent and say, "What do you advise us on this? Is this something you support?" So I think that was a valid way to go about it.

ACIE: The main stumbling blocks you encountered in the process?

Swanson: That if you’re going to put a task force together, make sure it’s got people who need to be educated on it from the junior high site, people who do need to have input. That it isn’t the elementary site pushing this thing along. [People from the junior high] need to own it.

ACIE: How did it eventually happen that the junior high people bought into the idea that [the immersion program] was going to be extended even though some of them feared the loss of their jobs?

Swanson: I think the recognition by the principal that this was going to happen. It was our superintendent’s desire as well as our clients. But it was an uphill battle. It could’ve gone either way. And I think the upshot of it is that we do have less than the maintenance level recommended by research.

ACIE: And that was primarily because the people who did get involved at the junior high level felt that...

Swanson: There was not a lot of support because you can’t support what you don’t understand. It takes a while to understand immersion. You’ve got to read the research and you’ve got to hear other immersion educators and other administrators and teachers who’ve been through it. And to be given a decision to make without the knowledge, I think that’s what we often run up against in immersion, where people make decisions about our schools, about us, who haven’t been brought along in the education process and part of that education process is talking through the impact. This is the impact it will have if immersion is at the junior high. People always worry about their jobs. There’s always attrition and so you fill that attrition by an immersion teacher who could also teach some English sections. But all of that is a process you’ve got to bring people through, and if people aren’t at the table to be brought through the process, you have a lack of understanding and a lack of sympathy for what you’re trying to get accomplished.

ACIE: You were saying that some of the teachers there felt that the students at the immersion program had already been privileged.

Swanson: As you know, the elite piece is always stuck onto immersion schools, fairly or unfairly. It’s kind of been a community sentiment. You can see that in budget cutting years when a whole community loses their language instruction at the elementary level because of budget cuts and then you have 47 students who have had, mind you, seven years of solid language, are totally bilingual. You can see where that comes in as a comparison piece.

ACIE: Do you have recommendations for other elementary immersion programs?

Swanson: Very definitely. Who is on the task force, what the expectations are, the attendance, that you bring people through the education piece of what immersion is, why it needs to continue, that you let them see other schools, talk to immersion educators, so it’s not just you. That is so key. I learned a huge lesson out of that.

ACIE: What would you consider your greatest success in this whole process?

Swanson: I think that an open-minded principal at the junior high who knew this was going to come was willing to step out and say, "Let’s start looking at this" and has come through the process and has gained a great understanding about it. I think that’s a big success. He’s learned over this process what needs to happen at his site...and he recognizes the value... he’s eager for these kids to be there. They test well, they do well, they’ve learned to study hard. They’re bilingual. I think we should have had more of the staff at that level, you know. But I think we got the leader to understand. I think that’s a success piece. I think that in budget cutting times that it’s even happening is also a success.

ACIE: Is there any other thing that you would add to the list of challenges?

Swanson: I think another challenge is that our numbers aren’t right. I know that numbers have to break right for your budget not to be impacted. You have to have that critical mass up front to bring an adequate number to junior high to run a valid program. Technically immersion doesn’t cost that much more. Teachers have to be hired all the time. There’s always attrition. Books in Spanish, yes, that’s a cost. But beyond that it shouldn’t cost a lot more. So starting with the right number of students up front, that is something so hard to get through to people.

ACIE: And what do you think that number is?

Swanson: I think around a hundred sounds right because then you come with 75, 70 kids. 75 - we would’ve had 3 sections. That would’ve been the right number. But I think that goes seven years back. You’ve got to make the right decision.

ACIE: And you’re doing that now because you’ve got...

Swanson: We’re up to 87 but we’re still not at 100 where we should be so that it breaks neat and clean at the junior high level.

ACIE: Did you find any research-based literature that was helpful in articulating the need for the program?

Swanson: Well, I found some. Tara Fortune helped me. I actually had her come and talk to the school board once, too. It was [also important] to bring in other immersion administrators and say, "Look, we’ve been through this." I think of [the principal] from [a local middle school] who came and said, "Trust me, whether you like it, this is how it should break out. This is what you need to talk to the parents about."

ACIE: Any other thoughts or reflections?

Swanson: A recommendation I would have is that all this learning that we’ve done, man hours we’ve spent, ought to be compiled somewhere so that’s it’s easily accessible so someone else doesn’t have to do it again. We all do it in isolation and that’s not necessary.

The other piece is hiring. We’re going to work very closely with the junior high because one thing we’ve done very well here at PSI is keep our Spanish level very, very high. We’ve had the same two people do oral and written assessments of all our candidates. In fact, it’s the first step we ask any candidate to take and if they don’t pass that, we don’t even go on with the interview process. And we’re going to continue that for the junior high. We’ll do it here.

ACIE: You’ve worked out something, then, with the junior high principal.

Swanson: Exactly. So that we know that the immersion language will be at the high level that we’ve tried to keep it at. I think that’s another piece that’s key.

Our media specialist did the first order of books for the media center because their media specialist has never done it. They got together and placed the order for the first set of Spanish books for their Spanish collection over there. That’s another piece, you know. You’ve got to give them some help if you’re going to expect them to do it because for many people that’s kind of intimidating. "I’ve never looked at a Spanish catalog. Where do I start?" And it’s not like ordering English books, as you know. The Spanish books don’t come catalogued and ready to be shelved. There’s all kinds of work that needs to happen. They’re very much harder to obtain in the first place, too. We will continue working with the junior high because we want to support that program.

ACIE: Who’s going to be working on the curriculum for these courses?

Swanson: Well, it’ll be the teachers that they hire. They had hoped somebody from here would go there, and I think that would be the ideal piece. I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

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