As soon as school let out, students from two Minneapolis schools headed south for summer classes.
The trip was a tough sell for a bunch of 10- and 11-year-olds.
Less than two days after the Minneapolis School District released them for summer break, they sat in classrooms 2,400 miles from home.
Bars lined the windows and barbed wire fencing surrounded the campus. But the beachfront hotel made it bearable.
More than 60 students from two Minneapolis Spanish immersion schools, Emerson and Windom, spent a week in Puerto Rico, forging connections with Spanish-speaking peers and polishing their language skills.
The fourth- and fifth-grade students spent three days at Dr. Modesto Rivera Rivera School, an elementary in the coastal city of Carolina, taking Spanish, math, science and drama classes.
"A lot of people were a little scared to reach out in the beginning, but we made new friends," Windom student Simon Lynn-Klimenko said.
Windom Principal Lucilla Yira organized the trip to introduce the young Spanish-speaking students to a new culture, the one she grew up in.
Yira hails from Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States. The trip marked her first visit to her homeland in five years, but the group's tight itinerary didn't allow time to visit family and friends.
She came to the United States 16 years ago for graduate school.
"We need to be grateful for what we have," she said.
Learning language, culture
In nine months, the schools raised more than $65,000 each selling T-shirts, packing groceries for tips, soliciting corporate donations and preparing thousands of fried empanadas.
The two immersion schools, among several in Minneapolis and many more statewide, teach subjects such as math, science and reading in foreign languages to broaden and deepen their students' exposure.
Teachers who work at Minneapolis' Spanish immersion schools hail from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Spain.
Not all their students are learning Spanish. Some are Spanish speakers learning English as a second language.
After class and during the weekend, students mixed in play with work, soaking up Puerto Rican culture and touring the island. They paddled in kayaks, explored caves and trekked through rainforests and forts.
"Its culture is so different," said parent chaperone Jay Hatch, who accompanied his daughter Melana. "They got a lot of that, not only in school, but in our travels."
The trip also was an education for the parent chaperones, especially those who don't speak Spanish, said Mary Karen Lynn-Klimenko, a Windom parent.
"They got a chance to see what it's like to be their kid for a day," she said.
Blending in, reaching out
As a 12-year-old, Mark Quinn traveled to Mexico as an exchange student, learning Spanish during his time there.
"It changed my life," said Quinn, now the principal at Emerson Spanish Immersion.
Yira hoped to replicate that feeling, producing a life-altering experience for the students.
By the last day of the trip, the students, more confident in their Spanish, began to blend in with locals, parents said.
"Seeing [the students] get comfortable was fantastic," Lynn-Klimenko said. The residents "thought they were Puerto Rican," she added.
Emerson and Windom will adopt Modesto Rivera Rivera as a sister school, raising funds to help the school stock its threadbare library.
Yira also is trying to arrange for its students to visit Minneapolis next year, making this month's trip the start of an annual cultural exchange.
Like their peers in Minneapolis, the Puerto Rican students are learning a new language: English.
"Every day was just so much fun," said Melana Hatch, a former Emerson student headed to Anwatin Middle School.
"It was good to communicate with them."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491