Milwaukee German Immersion School

The ACIE Newsletter, June 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

By Helena Curtain, Assistant Professor, Foreign Language and ESL Education,
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,
and Mary Buchert, Program Implementor, Milwaukee German Immersion School,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin



Milwaukee German Immersion School (MGIS) is a four-year-old kindergarten through Grade 5 elementary school founded by Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in 1977. The school serves as a citywide specialty school to attract children from all parts of Milwaukee with the innovative total language immersion program.

The impetus to begin a German immersion program came from the foreign language curriculum specialist at that time, Anthony Gradisnik, who had heard of the successes of Canadian immersion programs. Milwaukee Public Schools was under court-ordered integration, so Gradisnik suggested that the success of the French immersion programs in Canada could be duplicated in Milwaukee's proposed magnet school program. He enlisted support from the German community through the 32 German clubs in the city and from the German department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He faced an even more difficult challenge to convince members of the school board, since several directors had concerns that children in a German immersion program would not learn English because the school was "Germanizing" them. Gradisnik hired Helena Anderson Curtain to serve as the first program implementor (coordinator), who had the tough task of recruiting students, finding materials, and making curricular decisions.


Fun in kindergarten!

During its initial year, in February 1978, the program encountered its first crisis when a school board member declared that the immersion program was illegal, since state law (passed during World War II) indicated that all programs except foreign language programs must be taught in English. The school board member further declared that the program was "psychologically damaging" children by withholding their native language. The immersion parents were so convinced of the merits of the program (after only five months of its existence) that they banded together to lobby at the capitol for the continuation of the program. Fortunately, their efforts were successful and the state law was changed to include immersion programs under the definition of "foreign language" programs. In the following year, the fall of 1978, the district opened a French immersion school, and two years after that, in the fall of 1980, a Spanish immersion program was begun.


By state law, immersion teachers must hold elementary certification issued from a state that has reciprocity with Wisconsin. This law, along with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's lack of cooperation with MPS Human Resources, has prevented us from hiring teachers from German-speaking countries. The school system's Department of Human Resources recruits teachers for the entire district. Recruitment for the program specifically is done nation-ally through colleges and universities with strong foreign language and education departments. In past years, a consultant has been employed to conduct on-site interviews. When a potential teacher is identified by the Department of Human Resources, the principal interviews the candidate and the program implementor evaluates both oral and written German fluency with a test she developed in 1993. If all parties rate the candidate highly, a contract is offered.

Thus far, the school has been fortunate in finding teachers with a very high proficiency in German. The program is also most fortunate to have 10 immersion assistants who serve as small-group tutors and language role models for the students. A mix of native and non-native speakers has been beneficial to the program in that it presents balanced viewpoints when discussing language issues.

All new teachers receive initial orientation by the district, and then in the school receive immersion program orientation with Helena Curtain and materials orientation with the program implementor, Mary Buchert. This is extremely vital because of the lack of immersion teacher training programs in universities.

The program has established several additional support networks to assist new teachers with classroom management, stress reduction, and mentoring. The program also provides professional development days for new teachers, which allow them to observe other teachers in the building and to explore the extensive resources in the Teacher Resource Center. Teachers discuss issues regularly in grade-level and cross-grade level meetings. The school district also provides ongoing in-service offerings for new teachers in curricular areas.


One of the main reasons for the program's success has been the "implementor" (curriculum coordinator) of the program. Her main responsibility is the adaptation of the Milwaukee Public Schools curriculum, the procurement of German materials, and their correlation to all areas of the American curriculum. The implementor has the expertise and the time to obtain necessary materials through direct purchase from publishers in German-speaking countries.

Currently, the school has a collection of over 17,000 German children's books. When materials are unavailable or unsuitable, the program implementor has initiated extensive translation and adaptation of U.S. materials. She has guided the native assistants to translate materials at an appropriate language level, and has produced many exemplary materials. Most of this work was done after regular school hours and in the summer. In the last 16 years, the program has developed these items in addition to many others:

  • translations of 130 Big Books in various content areas and textbook series for social studies, science, and math;
  • a scope and sequence for German Language Arts for kindergarten to Grade 6, one for the science curriculum, and another that integrates German reading, language arts, social studies, science, and health at the kindergarten through Grade 2 levels;
  • units, materials, and/or vocabulary for science, computer technology, social studies, spelling, reading comprehension, and handwriting;
  • a German music curriculum.

Authentic German children's literature is the basis of the German reading program. The students use readers that are approved for use in schools in Germany. Since native-English speaking students do not have the same background knowledge as children in Germany, third through fifth grade students read textbooks at one grade level lower than their peers in Germany. This is remarkable in that only a handful of the students come from German-speaking homes.

Media and technology present distinct challenges in a German immersion program. Since German elementary schools until recently had little access to computers, it had been very difficult for the program implementor to find child-appropriate educational software. Only with the advent of the Internet has this task become easier, and the school now has site licenses for 12 different software titles. The school has another 100 or so individual copies of German software used in classrooms or for check-out.


Learning to read German in first grade.

Through PTA funding, the school was able to purchase two multi-standard televisions and video-recorders in order to transfer videotapes from the PAL system to the NTSC system used in the United States. There are presently 200 German children's videos available for students to check out and watch at home. German videos are shown in the classroom as they fit into the curriculum.


Student performance is constantly being assessed in accordance with state and district requirements. Analysis of test data indicates a consistently high level of performance on formalized tests. The performance of the German immersion program as a school in an urban district equals or surpasses the performance of most suburban and rural schools in Wisconsin.

Since there is no standardized elementary German language test available, the program has developed an authentic German writing assessment for Grade 2-5 students. This test has been administered annually since May 1993.

Since 1993-94 each immersion student has maintained a cross-curricular communication portfolio. This portfolio includes various work samples at every grade level from 4-year-old kindergarten through fifth grade. The samples are of the children's written work, from rough draft to final product, on-demand German writing samples, and German reading verification tests. The portfolios follow the students throughout their immersion schooling into middle and high school. Teachers review the portfolios at the beginning of each year to give them a clearer picture of a student's past performance and areas to focus on in their instruction.


Students may continue in the Grade 6-12 German immersion program at Milwaukee School of Languages. Approximately 75% of the students choose to enroll in this continuing immersion program, where they will study math, social studies, and language arts in German. Regular monthly meetings of the MPS Immersion Policy Committee, Immersion Curriculum Committee, and City Wide Language Immersion Council (see Points for Parents on p. 7) ensure that articulation strategies are in place.


Although many successes have been achieved, challenges still remain. We want to continue our efforts to improve the integration of language and content. We want to work harder to make immersion a success for at-risk urban students. We need to continue to develop materials as the curriculum changes and as new approaches to teaching and learning become available. We are very proud of what we have achieved and look forward to continuing our hard work to bring the gift of languages to children.




School Information:

Milwaukee German Immersion School (MGIS)
Target Language: German
Full immersion program
Year began: 1977
Current grade levels: Elementary K-5, Middle 6-8, High school 9-12

District Issues:


Location: Urban
District size: 100,000 students

Number of immersion programs in district: 5 - French, German, and Spanish Elementary programs,
1 - Middle school, and 1 - High school.

Admissions Process:


Lottery: No criteria
Post K-1: No students may enter the program unless they have German language proficiency.

Student Population:


Total: 585
Free and Reduced Lunch: 30%
African-American: 33%
European-American: 66%
Latino/Hispanic: 1
English Language Learner: 1
Currently no Native American or Asian/Pacific Islander students are enrolled.

Teacher-Staff Population:


Teachers: 22, plus 4 specialist teachers in art, music, physical education, and reading resources.
Support staff: 11 teaching assts.
Native target-language speakers: 9 teachers, 8 support staff
Native English speakers: 13 teachers, 3 support staff
Teacher-student ratio: 1:26
Ethnicity: 5% African-American, 95% European-American

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