Parent Activism: A Critical Component for Secondary Immersion
The ACIE Newsletter, May 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3
By Martha Johnson, Spanish Immersion parent and former Coordinator, Highland Park Senior High, St. Paul, MN
If you build it, they will come." Parent activists in Saint Paul, Minnesota, used this slogan while lobbying administrators and school board members to extend the district’s popular Spanish Immersion Program into the high school. Early in 1995, the superintendent decided there were not sufficient numbers to justify a continuation of the program into senior high, "We will reconsider adding a program when there are more students." This was not the answer Spanish Immersion parents wanted to hear. Eighth grade students and parents felt betrayed. After all, these students had been the "guinea pigs" all the way through, the ones who had "new" teachers each year as the program added a grade. Parents and students argued that if the district waited there would never be enough students to build a quality continuation immersion program. Nothing changed.
So parents decided to make their voices heard. From February to May of 1995 hundreds of parents made phone calls, wrote letters, lobbied school board members, and organized meetings. They insisted that the district could not wait to extend the program even though there were only fourteen Spanish Immersion 8th graders at the time. More than 200 parents and children attended the final school board meeting in May where student after student, from kindergarten to 8th grade, made presentations in Spanish and English about the need for the program to continue. During the break before the final school board vote on the issue, two parent leaders (one who worked as a professional lobbyist) went out in the hall to "work" the board one more time. They came back and related the news up and down the rows of parents. It was unanimous; Spanish Immersion would continue at the senior high. There was a collective sigh of relief, and the verdict was clear: Parent activism can make the difference for the survival of a secondary immersion program!
Spanish Immersion Continues into the High School
The Spanish Immersion Program at Highland Park Senior High began the next fall, in September of 1995 with two classes: Spanish Immersion Language Arts and Spanish Immersion Social Studies. In addition, one teacher was given a 55-minute class period to coordinate the program. Since then, many changes have occurred at the senior high school. Site-based management expanded, the school transitioned to a 4-period day, the International Baccalaureate and Liberal Arts Programs blossomed and, most recently, Smaller Learning Communities were introduced. As for the immersion program, the coordinator time was eliminated and Social Studies classes were no longer being offered. By the 2001-02 school year, although the number of Spanish Immersion students in grades 9-12 had risen to more than 75, the immersion program had been reduced to one Language Arts course offering each semester.
Throughout the 2001-02 school year the 7-8 grade junior high immersion parents organized monthly events and business meetings that quickly revealed issues and parental concerns with the Spanish Immersion Program at the senior high. Mere survival was no longer the main interest—parents wanted to see the program expand and address deeper issues of program quality, such as curriculum alignment and continued language development.
With these goals in mind, the junior high immersion parents identified specific areas of concern, designed an action plan, and shared information with each other to carry out the plan. As before, they wrote letters, attended meetings and made phone calls. Although there were many committed parents, the effort drew most of its momentum from its leader, Karen Plaza. She created an email list to keep parents informed. She developed flyers for students to take home about parent meetings and immersion gatherings, wrote articles for the school newsletter and encouraged stronger parental involvement, lobbying for parents to join the school’s site council. One of Karen’s emails stated, "We parents need to be involved: listening to, speaking for and taking action based on our concerns for our students and program." Karen became the catalyst that brought people together. Hard work and determination eventually led to a meeting with the school district’s area superintendent who assured the parents that curriculum changes would be made.
Highland Park Senior High: A Sampling of Spanish Immersion Courses
• For 9th Graders •
Spanish Immersion - Highland Connections (8015/8515)
Course Description: Spanish Immersion Highland Connections is a
one-quarter course that will introduce freshman Spanish Immersion
students to Highland Park Senior High School, its community, history,
traditions and expectations. It will provide students with practice
in development of responsibility, self-discipline, and skills in
dealing with stress. It will provide experience in communicating
with others in Spanish and resolving conflicts, and practice using
important study skills. Students will participate in activities related
to cultural diversity. Finally, the course provides experience in
analysis of interests, aptitudes, work-related values, career exploration,
resume writing and making educational plans for the years at Highland
• For 9th-12th Graders •
Spanish Immersion – Global Studies
Course Description: Global Studies is a comparative study of different regions and cultures in the world. Particular emphasis will be given to population, gender issues, religion and environmental concerns. Students will explore how these issues have evolved within different societies. Students will have an opportunity to study a particular region in depth. All course work and discussions will be in Spanish. Students will develop the knowledge and skills necessary to satisfy the Minnesota Graduation Standard: People and Cultures: Diverse Perspectives 7.3.
Spanish Immersion – Public Speaking Pre-IB
Course Description: Spanish Immersion Public Speaking is designed for students who want to improve their public speaking abilities in Spanish. The course includes a practical and theoretical investigation of public discourse, and the main focus will be on practical application of principles relating to research, speech development, the support of ideas, organization, style, audience adaptation and delivery. Student exercises will include informative and persuasive speaking, with extensive verbal and video feedback.
Spanish Immersion Plans Creatively Address Key Secondary Challenges
Once again, parent advocacy produced results. The district hired the former secondary immersion coordinator during the summer of 2002. Together with the high school Spanish Immersion Language Arts teacher, they designed an expanded 4-year cycle of courses for students in grades 9-12 taking into consideration many of the unique challenges that exist at the senior high school (see course overview on page 3).
Key Challenge #1: Low enrollment and the need to integrate the program and students within the larger school community.
Today there are about 85 immersion students in grades 9-12. Offering a four-year rotating cycle of courses open to students in grades 9-12 provides the needed numbers of students and allows more efficient use of existing secondary teachers. We are also working to re-define the Spanish Immersion Program to see how it fits within the context of the high school’s Smaller Learning Communities. While this reflects one effort to integrate within the larger school community, a second effort involves inviting enrollment in immersion courses offerings to select non-immersion students. This group includes native speakers who demonstrate strong language and literacy skills as well as a few very strong traditional Spanish Foreign Language students. We believe that it is important that we continue to include students from diverse language learning backgrounds who are interested in an immersion experience in the Spanish Immersion Program. At the same time, we are exploring ways to refine the enrollment criteria by developing appropriate assessments to ensure the requisite language proficiency and literacy skills of the non-immersion students.
Key Challenge #2: Need to offer courses that students find attractive and interesting.
To attend to this challenge, the new curriculum plan offers immersion students a greater array of classes, explores high-interest topics, and allows students access to "challenge" credits. Instead of just one language arts class each semester, for example, we now propose three content area options (one in math, social studies, and language arts).
In addition to this increased variety, we have purposefully selected course topics that we believe will appeal to students and that we know are unavailable in English: Cultural Anthropology, Political Science and Global Studies are a few examples. Creative Writing, Public Speaking, Film Studies and Human Rights, Dramatic Arts and Service-Learning also add a more interesting twist to the Spanish language arts curriculum. More intriguing content through which to meet the Spanish language arts curriculum requirements gives students more options and increases student interest.
A third way to attract students to enroll in the immersion offerings is to ensure that students will not be asked to choose between doing immersion or "challenge" courses. "Challenge" courses include those with the desired Pre-IB/IB designation. Previously, many students were choosing not to take Spanish Immersion classes because they did not have the Pre-IB or IB status. Now students can take IB courses within the Spanish Immersion Program. We also hope a few of our new courses will eventually become part of the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program. This program allows students to receive college credit for accredited courses taught in the students’ high school.
Key Challenge #3: Need to offer courses that meet curricular requirements established by the school and the state’s graduation standards.
Our curriculum plan gives students a way to fulfill the various requirements set forth by the school and the state. There are two one-quarter course offerings that target 9th graders only and will be offered every year to incoming immersion students. One of them, the Connections course, is required for all 9th graders in the school and until now has only been taught in English. It is a survey course designed to help students think about career options, the scope and sequence of the courses they will take at Highland, develop study and conflict resolution skills, and thoughtfully choose a Smaller Learning Community for their 10th – 12th grade years. By offering this class in Spanish students can meet the requirement and take a class in Spanish. We also looked long and hard at graduation requirements and developed courses that would satisfy them. As a result, Minnesota Graduation Standards are explicitly embedded within most Spanish immersion courses.
Where We Are Now
We are working towards full implementation. However, our success will depend on the school’s budget, staff availability, and student enrollment in the courses. There is still much to be done. We are already working on staffing these courses for next year, helping the senior high administration create the schedule to include the new courses within the context of the Smaller Learning Communities, finding appropriate textbooks, and developing the actual course curriculum. Parents are actively helping with the course registration process. We are also seeking collaboration with the University of Minnesota to offer SI social studies classes to juniors and seniors for college credit through the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools Program.
Back in 1994-1995, parent activism was the driving force behind the survival of the Continuation Spanish Immersion Program at Highland Senior High. Now, it is the driving force behind refinement and promotion of an expanded, stronger, more effective curriculum. To ensure its future, Spanish Immersion parents, teachers and administrators must continue to grapple with the complexities of secondary education. We have come a long way over the past two years learning how to pool our ideas and to come up with creative solutions to complicated issues. Karen often closed her email updates with, "Working together we can and do make a difference." That says it all. Thank you, Karen, for your hard work and dedication.