Kindergartners in the Prior Lake-Savage district may soon have the option to learn their colors and ABCs in another language.

The district recently created a committee to explore offering all-day Spanish immersion kindergarten next year, said Jeff Holmberg, assistant superintendent and the committee’s facilitator.

Given that two surveys in the past four years have indicated that parents were interested in the idea, the district decided to look into it, he said.

And since the district will be adding more kindergarten classes next year anyway because the state is funding all-day kindergarten, researching immersion programs now “just made sense,” said Alison Schiebel, a parent on the committee.

Initially, two or three sections of immersion kindergarten could be offered at Edgewood Elementary, said Holmberg. As that group gets older, first and second grade would be added, and eventually “our intent is we would be offering it through fifth grade,” said Holmberg.

Though the board hasn’t approved anything and the committee hasn’t offered a recommendation, “It sounds like all systems are kind of a go,” Schiebel said.

The goal is to enroll 75 students, or three classes, so there will be enough students to sustain it, said Rochelle Metzger, a kindergarten teacher at Glendale Elementary who is on the committee. A minimum of 50 students or two classes is needed to move forward, Metzger added.

The district is still gauging parent interest levels by sending out pre-registration cards and through recently held information sessions, which indicated a good amount of interest, Holmberg said.

Language immersion programs provide students with the chance to learn a second language fluently from a young age. Since classes are taught largely in the other language by a native or near-native speaker, kids learn to speak, read and write fluently in that language.

Most programs also teach students cultural elements of the countries where the second language is spoken, said Kimerly Miller, past chair of the Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network (MAIN).

Many metro-area districts, like Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Edina, St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale, already offer immersion programs, Schiebel said.

“The last 10 years has seen phenomenal growth,” Miller said.

There are now more than 60 language immersion schools in Minnesota, with Spanish the most popular language offered, Miller said. Most are elementary schools in public districts, she added.

Parents have various reasons for wanting their kids to learn another language, Miller said.

“It’s seen as kind of an academic edge that kids have by the time they get to secondary school, college and future jobs,” Miller said.

Some parents have family or cultural reasons for their interest. There’s also research that says that kids do better in all academic areas when they learn a new language, she said.

Schiebel said she was considering moving to another district so their 3-year-old could attend an immersion school. Now, she’s happy they might be able to stay in Prior Lake, she said.

“Both my husband and I just really feel it’s a gift, just to give them that opportunity to be fluent in another language by such a young age,” she said.

Schiebel said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the district had more demand than it could meet.

“I really could see people moving down here specifically for immersion, because the homes are somewhat affordable,” she said.

More details to come

The committee is examining what has worked for other districts, Holmberg said, including an Eastern Carver County schools program that’s been “a nice model for our committee to look at.”

While the committee is still doing research, they’re “leaning toward” a dual immersion model, Metzger said.

Typically, dual immersion means that there are kids whose first language is both of the languages being taught — in this case, Spanish and English — in the class. That way, the students are learning both languages together, Holmberg said.

“We would love to get [Spanish-speaking] families involved,” Metzger said. It also means students are taught in both languages, she said.

So far, the committee has found that in kindergarten, teaching up to 90 percent of lessons in Spanish works best, with more English added each year, she said.

Kindergartners would still be taught the same concepts, using state standards, that other kids learn in English, Metzger said.

There are still plenty of challenges and decisions to be made, Metzger said.

The committee has heard that finding qualified bilingual teachers can be hard, Metzger said, and locating curriculum and textbooks in Spanish could be difficult, too.

Holmberg said the group aims to bring a recommendation to the board in late November or early December as to whether the district should offer Spanish immersion kindergarten, and then the board will vote.

Since kindergarten orientation is planned for Jan. 23 and parent meetings will have to be held as well, there’s “some urgency” to get decisions made “so that we can put some logistics and specifics into it,” he said.

“We really want to have as much information out there … so that [parents] can have a discussion about it and start to make some decisions moving forward,” he said.