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Language immersion: How far do we go?

Pair of school board members wowed by Minnetonka program

In a school 1,700 miles away in Minnetonka, Minn., two weeks ago, teachers taught a math lesson for fifth-graders in three different languages - English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

Lake Oswego School Board members Teri Oelrich and Bob Barman witnessed the lesson during their recent trip to Minnetonka and came back raving about how the experience will benefit school board members poised to make a decision on whether to offer language immersion in grades 1 through 5.

Oelrich and Barman traveled on their own dime along with Sarah Howell and Lara James, two Lake Oswego parents who are big proponents of implementing a similar language immersion model here.

Minnetonka has a lot of similarities to Lake Oswego, and so it made sense to the travelers to learn from that district. Minnetonka is a city of 49,000 with a median household income of $79,720. Its school district is similarly configured with six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. When the school district decided to implement language immersion, it considered a magnet model but, like Lake Oswego, its citizens value neighborhood schools. Instead, the district unrolled the new program at each of its schools in 2007.

Barman, who owns gas stations along the West Coast, compared the trip to his business trips to see what other gas stations are doing. The school board members should be looking to best practices in other districts to see how to keep things innovative in Lake Oswego.

'I felt an obligation to be learning about this if I'm going to be voting on something,' said Barman. 'Its made me very much aware that we need to be willing to take a look at this.'

Oelrich added she wanted to see how a public school district has made language immersion work.

Barman agreed: 'A good education should not be limited to the wealthy.'

In kindergarten, all parents can choose which classroom to send their children - English, Spanish or Chinese. The curriculum is the same for all three languages, so the students are not getting different lessons. This was not difficult to do for Spanish, but the Mandarin teachers actually translated all of the curriculum themselves - a product that is now available for purchase.

Minnetonka also has established relationships with overseas universities to recruit teachers from China and Chile.

Today, there are 1,900 students in the program from 41 different school districts. By law in Minnesota, students are allowed to attend any public school district that they want - within certain guidelines - regardless of their home address. Oregon will institute similar open enrollment rules next fall.

So, for each out-of-district student that is allowed to transfer into the Lake Oswego district, it could mean another $7,000 annually to the district.

Minnetonka also saw a surge in enrollment from students already living in its boundaries, likely students whose families formerly paid for private schools.

'If you had this kind of program, you wouldn't have all these parents tromping out,' said Barman.

Steve Milla, a former Lake Oswego resident, moved his family to Northwest Portland hoping to catch a spot in the Ainsworth Elementary Spanish immersion kindergarten, which uses a lottery system for its highly desirable spots. But when his daughter Cosette didn't get in, he ended up enrolling her in La Monde, a French immersion school currently applying to become a Portland Public charter school. If that doesn't work out, Milla has held onto his Lake Oswego home hoping that the district comes through with a commitment to do kindergarten through fifth grade immersion.

James added that she would consider paying tuition to send her first grade daughter to West Linn-Wilsonville if that district rolls out a Spanish immersion at the new Trillium Creek Elementary School next fall. Otherwise, she'd likely have to go back to work for her and her husband to be able to afford a private school language immersion option.