Starting an Immersion Program:  Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The ACIE Newsletter, February 2004, Vol. 7, No. 2

by Shannon Peterson, Co-Chair, Interim Board of Directors, Lakes International Language Academy, Forest Lake, MN

Oh, how naive I was! I believed my knowledge of second language acquisition, my understanding of immersion education, and my new status as a stay-at-home mom would be just the qualifications I needed to start an immersion program in my community. Little did I know these skills and attributes, while indeed useful, would quickly take a back seat to my previously undiscovered skills in sales and politics.


Immersion Image

I thought it was simple. I thought one of our seven local elementary schools might be interested in starting an immersion strand, and perhaps in the future, even convert to an entire immersion elementary school. I called the district office and met with the Director of Curriculum. He told me he thought immersion was a good idea and that if I could gather twenty interested families, he didn't see any reason the school board wouldn't go with it on a trial basis.

I realize now that, having challenged me to find 20 interested families, he didn't think he'd ever see me again.


I got home from that meeting, created a brochure, and started gathering families. I put up a bulletin board display at the public library to advertise parent information meetings. I passed out brochures to parents at swimming lessons, and found various other no-cost ways to get the word out.

At the same time, Dr. Tara Fortune, a leading immersion educator, walked me through my program development plan, warned me about potential pitfalls, and tried to help me learn from earlier start-ups' mistakes. I also started attending district school board meetings in order to make my presence known and to begin to develop knowledge of the process and politics.


A couple of months later, speculating that perhaps my first school district contact was not working as hard on this project as I was, I scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. At this meeting, I spent an hour talking about the virtues of immersion. In the end, he said, "You don't have to sell me. I think it's a great idea." The roadblock, it seemed, was money. Specifically, we needed our local levy to pass before he could even think about offering this program.

No problem, I thought. I got our growing number of interested families to help out, making phone calls in support of the levy vote. After the levy passed, the district had several public meetings to get input on just how the new monies should be allocated. At each of these meetings, parents attended to speak up in support of Spanish immersion.

Then, on the day the school board was to vote on the new 2002/2003 budget, the superintendent called me to his office to tell me he would not be including Spanish immersion in the budget he would propose to the board that evening. Instead, he said he would suggest the board approve a task force to study the possibility of implementing immersion for the 2003/2004 school year. I was bitterly disappointed, mostly for the families of the students I had gathered who would be too old to enter the kindergarten immersion program if it didn't open in 2002.


The school board unanimously approved a task force to study the possibility of starting an immersion program for the 2003/2004 school year. Shortly thereafter, our parent group met to decide how we wanted to proceed. The options before us were: 1. work with the school district for a 2003/2004 start; 2. work on starting a charter school for a 2003/2004 start; or 3. both.

Given the amount of work involved in starting a charter, and the confidence most of us had about the board's unanimous decision to start a task force, we decided on option one.

Five parents volunteered to meet bi-weekly as members of the task force. In addition to the parents, the task force consisted of the superintendent, the (new) director of curriculum, two elementary principals, the World Language coordinator, and a high school Spanish teacher.

Most of the task force work was great. Being a member of a district task force working alongside principals and educators who so obviously cared for their students and for their staff was heartening. We enjoyed learn about immersion with them and watching them come to embrace it as much as our parents already did. Also, the task force meetings gave us structure; we were able to arrange for panel discussions of people from other immersion programs, we were able to visit schools, and we were able to discuss and debate immersion research.

Our task force work was especially rewarding, when after the first ten meetings or so, it became clear that we were not talking about IF an immersion program would begin in the district, but rather WHERE and HOW.


The last step of the task force before formally asking for board approval was to hold two "town" meetings in December 2002 that would inform the public about immersion and also gather their input.

The first meeting was nothing less than chilling. Though we had over sixty interested families by this time, we didn't push them very hard to attend. After all, it was December, we were all parents of preschoolers, and we were all busy. So on that awful night, we gave our introductory presentation, then realized that the only parents in support of Spanish immersion in attendance were the ones who had served on the task forceand the room was packed! Quite a few people were there to voice their concerns about money. They were angry about the school budget. They were angry at what they imagined would be another costly program for the district that would further shift funding away from other significant issues such as the already cut gifted and talented program, rising classroom size, and inadequate technology. We could empathize with these parents, and shared their concerns.

There were others whose main concern was not money, but the entire concept of teaching children in a foreign language. At certain points, the comments turned ugly. I'll share only one of several disturbing scenes.

"What flag is flying outside this school? The AMERICAN flag!" (applause)

"What language do we speak in this country? ENGLISH!" (more applause)

The high point of the evening occurred when one parent bravely got up and said she was impressed by immersion and by our presentation and was adding her child's name to the waiting list. Two others quietly slipped us their cards with their child's information as they walked out. When it was over, some of our task force members were honestly afraid to walk out to their cars. The local newspapers reported on the meeting accurately and fairly and it was just as painful to read about it a few days later.

The second public meeting went much better, being attended in equal numbers by pro- and anti-immersion community members. However, neither of the local papers attended, so the impression left in the larger community was fairly negative. We had learned a valuable lesson: we didn't really know the community in which we lived. We had surrounded ourselves with like-minded friends, and had not even been aware of what we describe as the "fear of others" in our community, or of the strong feelings of protecting the status quo. We knew then that if this idea were ever to be accepted in our community, we would have to do a much better job of educating the public about what we are trying to do.

A few days later, our district task force convened for one last meeting. Even though the second public meeting had gone quite a bit better than the first, we didn't know if the school board would be able to stand the pressure from the community when it came time for them to cast a formal vote three weeks later. As it turned out, the school board didn't get a chance to vote. Once again, the superintendent called me into his office on the day of the board meeting and told me he was no longer able to recommend to the school board that they vote to implement a Spanish immersion program. Déjà vu.


Immediately after the school board vote (or non-vote, as it was), many of the immersion parents gathered for an informal meeting over margaritas. While I personally was exhausted, the group was far from beat. And like any good idea, this one rose like a phoenix from the ashes that night, with newly motivated parents to lead the charge.


The good news is that we are moving forward again at full speed. In September 2003, our group received state approval to open as a charter school in the fall of 2004. We have spent the past months learning about charter schools, taking part in conferences, schmoozing, and gathering more families to our group. We now have over 100 interested families with over 200 children. By the time this article goes to press, we will have hired our director (principal) and will be in the midst of a far-reaching search for dynamic teachers.

The charter immersion route is a lot more work than is opening an in-district program. But, with the added responsibility comes added freedom. We can set our own priorities and make our own decisions. Another plus are the state, federal, and private grant monies available to start charter schools that are not available to existing districts starting new programs.

While we are far from finished, we are beginning to feel a bit older and wiser, certainly more aware of some of our hurdles, and more ready than ever to open Lakes International Language Academy in our community.

Lakes International Language Academy architectural plan
Architect's plan of the new Lakes International Language Academy

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