The Russian Spring School, held on Saturday mornings, has grown from one class to 18.
In Russian, Oksana Stalmakova goes over the names of animals with her 5-year-old students at the Russian Spring School in Shakopee. The school holds classes for 2½ hours on Saturday mornings at the Russian Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.
Shortly after the principal walks the hall and rings the bell for the class to begin, Mrs. Stalmakova's students settle in and listen to her read a story about sea divers.
The scene is similar to other preschool classes in Shakopee -- the 5-year-olds squirm in their seats as the teacher pauses frequently to explain difficult words. The difference is that it's Saturday morning and that Stalmakova is speaking Russian.
Her class is one of 18 at Russian Spring School. The school, which started with one class in 1997 at a church in Edina, has grown with the Russian community in Shakopee to an enrollment of roughly 220 students who come for two and half hours on Saturdays to learn Russian language, grammar and history while attending public schools during the week.
The school uses the Sunday school classrooms, and even the elders' board room, of the Russian Evangelical Christian Baptist Church, and in some cases space for more students is getting tight.
"We started out small, but now we have a class of sixth-graders with 28 students and no extra room to split the class," Olga Malashenko, the school administrator who acts as the principal, said in Russian.
But for parents, who pay about $25 a month per child to help maintain or build their Russian language and heritage, there are few complaints, said Malashenko, who had five kids of her own come through the Russian school.
"Parents are really happy that we have something like this to offer the Russian community," she said.
A close-knit community itself
Malashenko and most of the teachers at the school are members of the church. She was asked to help with administrative duties in 2000 when the school was looking to expand. The school registered with the city, started paying its volunteer teachers and implemented a stable curriculum for teachers to follow, with classes from preschool to seventh grade.
While the teachers are paid about $10 an hour at the Russian school, for most it's not about the money. The school itself is a close-knit community, with many of the teachers having their own children or grandchildren enrolled.
Teacher Tatyana Kanishcheva said she had a childhood dream of being a teacher. Her two grandchildren attend the school.
"I just wanted to help any way I could," Kanishcheva said in Russian.
Although Kanishcheva had not been a teacher until this school opened, some of the classes are taught by former teachers who taught in Russia, Malashenko said.
Each year, students move up a grade, assuming they pass their annual exams. The grade level isn't necessarily determined by age, Malashenko said, but by knowledge of the Russian language.
"We get kids that just came from Russia and have greater knowledge, and others who are just starting to learn the Russian language," Malashenko said. "The hope is that they would learn and maintain it."
'Heritage language' a plus
These types of "heritage language" learning programs are especially helpful in developing reading and writing skills of the language, which can lead to their fluency, said Elaine Tarone, director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.
"It provides a foundation that you can build on to become fluent in the language," Tarone said. Russian especially has become important, she said, and has become a critical language.
Though Shakopee has a large Russian community and the language is the third-most-commonly spoken among students in the school district, the district doesn't offer Russian as a foreign language.
"The district can only support a limited number of languages," said Jon McBroom, the superintendent. The Shakopee district includes students of more than 30 spoken languages, McBroom said, and a significant student population participates in English language learners (ELL) classes.
Denise Harlos, the special services coordinator for the school district who has worked at developing the ELL program, said there has been some interest in creating a dual-language program, but the idea has never taken shape. However, Harlos said, she continually stresses to parents the importance of conserving their children's native language.
"When they are able to continue to hang on to that language, it maintains a connection to their heritage," Harlos said. "Language is really an asset."
Vadim Lavrusik is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org