Parents have asked the Lake Oswego School Board to research the possibility of expanding our world language programs into earlier grades. For that mission we traveled to Minnetonka, Minn., last week (at our own expense) to observe a language immersion elementary program.
Minnetonka is a suburban Minneapolis district similar in size and demographics to Lake Oswego. In 2007 Minnetonka created the only public language immersion program in the U.S. that places no limit on enrollment and provides a choice of immersion classrooms in every elementary school. Any child may participate in a Minnetonka immersion program by opting in at kindergarten.
Today, about half of Minnetonka incoming kindergarten students are enrolled in Spanish or Chinese immersion. The K-5 program is now in its fifth year, and plans are to add middle school immersion next year.
We observed classrooms identical to other elementary classrooms except all posters, smart boards and chalkboards were in Spanish or Chinese. All communication and instruction in the classroom was in the chosen language. It was inspirational to watch students respond to questions in Spanish/Chinese, then run out to the playground and converse in English. What will their future look like, what doors will be opened to these students because of their bilingual ability?
Parents who chose immersion in kindergarten were told to expect their children to test slightly lower because they were mastering two languages. This did not happen. The students in the immersion classes tested higher on English standardized tests (third grade testing).
Minnetonka officials conveyed that their program has been successful and embraced by teachers because they did not compromise their hiring practices, although they have had to work harder at finding the quality of teacher expected in their district.
One worry in providing immersion programs is attrition as students progress to upper grades. Minnetonka has not experienced this: Each year district enrollment has increased.
Ten years ago Minnetonka faced enrollment declines and school closures. Their strategic planning process led them to open enrollment strategies and establishment of a language immersion program (http://www.minnetonka.k12.mn.us/administration/Board/BoardReports/2011/11_OpenEnrollment2011.pdf ). Minnetonka has 1,900 open enrollment students, 16 percent of whom have moved into the community, strengthening the real estate market. Superintendent Dennis Peterson said, 'Minnetonka is the only bright spot for housing in the entire Twin Cities area.'
Dr. Peterson explained that the incremental cost of educating an additional child was $2,000 because every class is filled to capacity. This has generated an additional $8 million in revenue, allowing them to keep librarians, PE teachers and other programs that are on the chopping blocks in many districts. This made a lasting impression on both of us and made us realize that as a community we need to carefully study the entire open enrollment issue in a strategic way. This past year Oregon enacted legislation that would allow LOSD to enroll students from other districts.
In summary, we came away with an approach to implementing a world language immersion program. Minnetonka used language immersion and open enrollment as a vehicle for enhancing the education of students and bolstering district growth.
We will be recommending that our entire school board return to Minnetonka to collectively observe this innovative community. It would be fabulous if we could implement strategies that fit our students and community.
Teri Oelrich and Bob Barman are members of the Lake Oswego School Board.