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Family chooses Spanish immersion

Part 1 in the language immersion series: Family hopes LOSD will offer language immersion option for their kids someday
by: Vern Uyetake, Steve Milla and his wife Shannon have both signed a petition to the Lake Oswego School District to encourage them to offer language immersion beginning in elementary school. They hope that their children Cosette, who will enter kindergarten in 2011, and Isabel, who will be in kindergarten in 2012, will be functionally fluent in Spanish someday.

Isabel Milla toddles toward her mom, Shannon Milla, who is standing on the porch in their backyard in Southwest - just shy of the Lake Oswego city limits. Her older sister Cosette, who is two years old, wrinkles her nose and sniffles at the hot sun.

'She hasn't been feeling well,' her dad Steve Milla explained - which isn't too fun if it's your first week of camp and you can't understand what your teacher is saying.

Claudia Morales, Cosette's teacher, is a native Spanish speaker who is leading a 12-week language immersion preschool camp at Chiquitos School in Cedar Hills.

It's a learning experience for both Cosette and her monolingual mother, Shannon.

Shannon had to find a way to communicate with Claudia about a sore Cosette had in her mouth. She has had to be creative when finding out what Cosette ate and did not eat for lunch. And she has learned new words from Cosette, who approached her one day and said, 'Mommy, I want to go afuera,' which means outside.

It isn't as if Cosette hadn't been exposed to Spanish before - her dad is a second generation Peruvian - but to be in an environment where no adults spoke English was a shock for her. For the first week, she cried and ran up to the office where the administrative assistant or librarian assistant worked because they spoke English.

Each week, Claudia selects a theme such as pets, family and water safety and structures lessons around them using songs, books or crafts - entirely in Spanish.

'Now when we drop her off she is so excited and happy to be there. She loves her teacher, the helpers and her friends,' said Shannon. 'When I pick her up, she goes around to Claudia, the teacher aids and students to give them hugs and says 'Adios.''

Typically, Steve drops Cosette off on his way to his Beaverton law practice, located off of Highway 10 and Highway 217. Born and raised in a bilingual home in Washington, D.C., Steve attended the University of Maryland and then earned his law degree at University of Baltimore in 1997. In D.C. he worked as an assistant state's attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland, and met Shannon, who he became engaged to in 2001.

'D.C. is fun, but it's a lot of traffic,' said Steve, who commuted for an hour and a half to work. 'It's good for your career but bad for a home life.'

He had been to Portland five or six times with Shannon, who grew up in Beaverton, before they decided to move here in 2002. At first Steve worked for a law firm in downtown Portland, but in 2004 he opened his private practice in Beaverton. Today 95 percent of his clients are Hispanic. About 50 percent of his work is immigration-related, he said, but he also does personal injury and a little criminal defense 'to keep a foot in the courthouse.'

'Then I get people who ask questions like: 'My rent is late. What do I do?' Or they have questions about leasing a car,' said Steve, who does almost all of his business in Spanish. He's had people come in wondering why they don't own their car after years of payments only to explain to them the difference between leasing and buying.

'I am helping people to make better decisions in the future,' he said.

Both his legal assistant and receptionist are bilingual, and Steve said he wouldn't hire anyone who is not bilingual - which means he can never hire his wife.

Though Shannon's mother is Indo-Dutch, she was never exposed to foreign language at home and took only three years of high school Spanish and a smattering of language tapes and other classes leaving her short of being functionally proficient.

Before living in D.C. and meeting Steve, Shannon graduated from Arizona State University in 1996.

While she was in college, she did what many American college students dream of - she studied for a summer in England and Scotland and traveled all over Europe and the Middle East. It is the moments of more personal interaction with locals that stick out to her. While in Petra, Jordan, her taxi driver invited her and her friends into his home.

'It's a great experience, but it took it to another level to travel with someone who speaks the language,' said Shannon comparing it to moments she's enjoyed in Peru when she was traveling with Steve. 'When I traveled with him in a foreign country, we would really get to know the local people.'

Following their wedding in 2002, the Millas traveled for six months and visited Colca Canyon, Peru - a canyon that is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon - and were able to visit a school just to talk to the kids about America. She wouldn't have been able to do that if Steve wasn't there.

It's the personal interaction that traditional language courses aren't teaching, said Shannon. 'I've taken numerous Spanish lessons. I can count and ask basic questions but I feel like I'm missing being able to interact with people. Our cleaning lady speaks Spanish and I can't talk to her.

So in thinking about something that they can give their kids, the Millas have chosen language.

Though Shannon has been working at a software company in Beaverton for the last four years, she used to work in the staffing industry - an experience that made it more apparent to her that bilingual workers are needed in the workplace. 'I strongly think in 20 years that language will be so critical,' said Shannon. 'They'll be competing against kids in China and India.

But it's more than that for the Millas. It's about gaining a 'cultural understanding of a different world,' said Shannon.

Initially, the Millas thought they could pass on language skills through Steve, but it doesn't work well because he talks to Shannon in English only.

That's how they became convinced that Spanish language immersion was the best option.

At first the Millas turned to some of the most visible immersion schools - The International School, which offers immersion in Spanish, Japanese or Chinese, and Portland Public School's full Spanish immersion school, Ainsworth Elementary, in Southwest Portland.

But once they started looking they found dual Spanish-English programs as well as other full immersion schools in Portland and Beaverton.

'We're trying to figure out the best option,' said Shannon.

Some parents scoff at the Millas for being proactive about their children's education at such a young age (Cosette will enter kindergarten in 2011; Isa in 2012) 'What are you going to do next? Start looking at college prep schools?' they'll say.

But Shannon's reasoning is that once her girls get to be 9 or 10 years old, it will be harder to decide which activities to go with. 'We want language to be something they've just always done,' she said. 'When I tried to learn Spanish at an older age, it didn't come to me easily and by that time in my life other activites, hobbies or jobs had taken priority over learning a foreign language.'

Steve would like to stick with a public school if possible, so when the Millas found out that a friend Sarah Howell, from the Lake Oswego Moms Club, was trying to gain support for a petition to the Lake Oswego School District (LOSD) to add language immersion programs, it was an instant involvement. Though the Milla's home is located in Portland, they are one of a handful of families that still live inside the LOSD boundaries.

'I'm a public school proponent. I'm not disinclined to public school,' said Steve, who attended public school himself. But the public schools aren't giving a lot of options.

'On the East Coast, private schools are elitist,' he explained his hesitancy about private school. 'Public schools are community schools. (If they attend), the kids can walk home with friends.'

The Millas are willing to relocate to an area with an immersion school if necessary.

This summer is their trial run of Chiquitos, where Cosette is attending day camp. It might be a good option for the Millas because Isa could start next summer at the same day camp as her sister.

This is the first part in a three-part series on language immersion. The series profiles local families who are advocates of bringing an immersion program to the Lake Oswego School District. For more information on the petition, contact Sarah Howell at howell.fam This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To find out about LOSD language offerings, contact Donna Atherton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. or.us .