Surge in immersion programs spreads

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2013 - 12:27 AM

Middle and high schools are adding language immersion programs to meet rising demand, changing demographics and a need to compete in an increasingly multilingual world.

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Speaking only in Spanish, Juntos teacher Erik Thompson worked with students, from left, Edison Garcia, Juan Tapia and Fernando Cuevas during class at North Junior High in Hopkins.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Across Minnesota, language immersion programs are growing -- and growing up.

Demand to prepare students for a global job market and competition to attract students have doubled the number of immersion programs since 2006. Once limited to elementary schools, they're reflecting a national trend and spreading to middle schools and a handful of high schools.

Some districts are tailoring their programs to reflect demographic changes. In Hopkins, where the number of Hispanic students has nearly doubled in a decade, the district is expanding a unique program that pairs native Spanish speakers, who never received grammar or formal training, with immersion students, who are learning how to speak the language. It's so popular that science and an Advanced Placement class are being added next year.

"It's about positioning Minnesota economically and politically to really be players on the world scene," said Tara Fortune, an immersion expert at the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition who advises schools across the state, nation and world.

School districts, she added, are realizing they can't do without an immersion program of some sort. More suburban schools like St. Louis Park, Forest Lake and Cottage Grove have added secondary immersion programs. Some, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Robbinsdale, have had them for years.

"People have realized, even here in the Midwest, that the economy is global and our kids need to be able to compete," said Elizabeth Dwight with the Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network, which is hosting an immersion day at the State Capitol on Feb. 19. "And parents are demanding it. ... It's gathering steam."

Science classes go global

Of the 85 immersion programs in Minnesota, more than half are Spanish and now about a dozen are at middle and high schools. Schools structure them differently, with various languages, extent of English allowed or student demographics. For instance, Cottage Grove and Plymouth middle school programs are geared for English-speaking students.

But prompted by a growing Hispanic population, more districts like Hopkins, Richfield and Roseville are starting two-way programs for both native and non-native speakers. Like other school districts, Hopkins is expanding its program to included science, humanities and an Advanced Placement class, in part to try to boost Hispanic students' participation in AP classes -- and later, college.

Statewide, Hispanic students are the fastest-growing minority group in Minnesota's K-12 schools -- adding more than 11,000 students just in five years. But state data also show they're among the least likely to graduate from high school and earn a college degree.

Even though he grew up speaking Spanish with his parents, who moved from Guatemala, 17-year-old Jose Hernandez enrolled in Hopkins' class.

"I can speak it fluently, but the writing and grammar I never learned," said the Hopkins junior, who now writes papers in Spanish and plans to enroll in the AP class to get college credit. "It's challenging in that sense because I don't know the [grammar] rules."

It's also created a sense of community for students, Juntos teacher Erik Thompson said. "It's the one place they don't have to hide their language."

Not 'anti-English'

The programs have seen some controversy, however. The U's Fortune said some districts have vetoed immersion, in part, because of outspoken, pro-English critics -- something she said is misguided.

"An immersion program isn't anti-English," she said. "It's proven itself ... [and] bilingualism and biliteracy are more prevalent across the world."

Some parents have also been concerned about students taking standardized tests in English after being taught in another language. But Fortune points to three decades of studies showing that English-proficient immersion students do as well or better on tests than non-immersion peers.

Up next: Trilingual?

Seventh-grader Rudy Meyer, who attends Minneapolis' Anwatin Middle School, agrees, adding that he automatically translates concepts taught in Spanish into English for tests.

"It's hard, but it's still interesting and fun and a really cool experience to speak in two languages," said Meyer, whose parents adopted him from Guatemala and encouraged him to be in the program to learn more about his heritage. "It's something special."

Nelson Peralta, who's raising his children in a bilingual family, said the Minneapolis immersion program is preparing his sixth-grader for college and a career.

"With each year, the benefits get great and greater," said Peralta, who uses his bilingual skills every day as an immigration law attorney.

Soon, though, Spanish could be outnumbered. Fortune said the movement is shifting focus to languages like Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese -- and starting at preschools.

Realizing that being bilingual is becoming the norm, Peralta encouraged his sixth-grader to take it to the next level: becoming trilingual. Besides Spanish and English, he now takes French.

"It would be great to see these options across the state," Peralta said. "It would make Minnesota stronger."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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