As Forest View Elementary teacher Brittany Cullen taught an addition and subtraction lesson in Spanish, her 20 wide-eyed first-graders leaned forward, making sure they caught every word.

When one student didn't understand a Spanish phrase, a friend would lean over and whisper the English interpretation.

"I think that means how many plants are in the forest," one student told a classmate.

"Muy bien," Cullen said.

Forest View and Lake Lino elementary schools added three partial Spanish immersion classes to their curriculum this year in an effort by the Forest Lake School District to expand curriculum and recruit and retain families -- and the per-pupil dollars that come with them. The program is of little additional cost to the district, administrators said.

In immersion programs, students are taught regular subject matter, such as math and geography, in a language other than English.

"There's a lot of research that says immersion students think more fluently and become more flexible thinkers," said Jennifer Tolzmann, the district's director of teaching and learning. "These kids are also thinking about different cultures at a very young age."

Currently, the district offers three first-grade partial-immersion classes, two at Forest View Elementary and one at Lino Lakes. It plans to add a class annually for each grade level, depending on demand, until all grades have an immersion option at both schools.

Idea bubbled up

The curriculum is an outgrowth of a grass-roots effort by parents.

Six years ago, a group of Forest Lake parents proposed that the district start an immersion program. After the school board voted down the idea, those parents began their own charter school.

Lakes International Language Academy now is at full capacity and has developed a lengthy waiting list.

The issue came before the school board again last year when a task force looking to expand world language programs at the district's high school suggested that the board take another look at starting an immersion program.

Soon after, the board voted to begin a partial open-enrollment immersion program at the two elementary schools.

"We knew there was a need for a program here, and we thought it'd be a great way to attract students," said Janet Palmer, principal of Forest View Elementary.

The immersion classes, which last half a day, are a series of mostly interactive activities -- singing, dancing and talking, all in Spanish. Other than speaking in Spanish, the students are learning the same curriculum their peers are studying in classes where English is spoken.

In an energetic conversation with Lino Lakes Principal Ronald Burris, immersion first-graders described how they were slowly catching on to their teacher's Spanish, and how they plan to use the language in real life.

"I hope I can order for my mom and dad when we go to a Mexican restaurant," said 7-year-old Sam Molberg.

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695