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District should find ways to help

'Are we going to roll up our sleeves or limp on?' Columnist Thomas L. Friedman posed this question recently about reducing the federal deficit. Yet it is appropriate as we also consider the future of our schools. To maintain our level of excellence and to keep pace with districts across the country, we've got to do more than just 'limp on.'

Like all parents, I want the best for my children. This year they're in third and first grade at Lake Grove Elementary School, a school with great teachers and a nurturing community. However, last May I was disappointed with the school board's decision not to expand the low-cost Spanish immersion program at Lake Grove. Because of this decision, my daughter Anna is losing much of the Spanish she acquired in the Spanish immersion Pre-K and kindergarten.

The decisions Lake Oswego makes regarding our elementary programs should be done with the futures of our youngest children in mind. The world is becoming more globalized each day. When my children graduate, fluency in a second language won't be a 'nice to have.' For access to the best universities and jobs, fluency will be a 'must have.' Multiple studies show that children who study a second language in an immersion setting meet or exceed the test scores of their mono-lingual peers in both English language arts and mathematics. It is no surprise that many of the top school districts nationwide offer world language programs for elementary students.

Last week I visited one such district. I accompanied school board members Teri Oelrich and Bob Barman on a visit to Minnetonka, Minn. In 2005, facing declining enrollment and a funding crisis, Minnetonka (school officials) considered programs they felt would enhance their educational offerings and also reverse their enrollment issues. In 2007 they offered students the opportunity to enroll in Mandarin or Spanish immersion at all six elementary schools. Since initiating this program, the elementary enrollment in Minnetonka has grown by 30 percent.

Enrollment growth has not been limited to immersion. Enrollment in Minnetonka has increased in 'English' elementary, middle and high school programs. Administrators in Minnetonka tell us that their investment in language immersion programs has resulted in projecting an 'aura of quality' across the entire district. New students have brought new revenue, enabling a new gifted and fine arts program, use of technology in the classroom, and lower class sizes. Minnetonka is also drawing top educators from all over the world.

In Lake Oswego we face many more years of cost-cutting measures, including larger class sizes and potential cuts to beloved programs like PE and music. The rationale for not expanding our language immersion programs was that it would be too expensive, that it would cost teachers, and that it wouldn't work. Our visit to Minnetonka proved otherwise.

Minimal investments were made for materials and curriculum translation, but these were more than offset by increased revenues due to greater enrollment. Because they have implemented immersion gradually adding one grade level per year, not a single English teacher was displaced to make room for an immersion teacher. In other words, a very small, but bold investment has resulted in huge returns.

The time has come for district leaders to roll up their sleeves and find ways to offer programs that best serve our youngest students.

Lara James is a resident of Lake Oswego.