It's early on a Wednesday morning at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Plymouth. The parking lot is bustling with activity as parents come and go, dropping off their children for early-morning Spanish lessons.

Kids from five elementary schools and three middle schools in the Wayzata School District show up bright and early each weekday to learn the language from native speakers through the nonprofit organization Que Tal.

Rosana Guastaferro engages her class of smiling, excited kindergarteners in games that have the 5-year-olds shouting out Spanish words for "train," "plane" and "car."

The program, for grades K-8, was started 10 years ago by two parents who wanted more Spanish lessons for their children than the Wayzata district could provide.

Marc Well Nagel and Lisa Gerber were frustrated over seeing their kids placed on a waiting list for immersion schools, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

They approached Kimberly Lane Elementary Principal Gary Kipling individually about options for starting their kids in Spanish before fourth grade, when the district begins to offer the language to non-immersion students. Kipling suggested the two team up, and Que Tal was born.

Since the program was started in 2002, it has grown from 15 students and one native-speaking teacher to 309 registered students and 16 teachers in 2012.

Most elementary students meet daily from 7:50-8:40 a.m. Middle-school students meet twice a week from 7-7:50 a.m., with an optional lab. The students are then bused to their regular schools. Some elementary students meet in after-school classes from 2:40-3:35 Monday-Thursday at Peace Lutheran Church on Hwy. 101.

According to Nagel, each year has seen growth, despite the initial skepticism over the sustainability of such an arrangement.

Financial support for the organization continues to come from parents, who pay tuition ranging from $990 to $1,490 per year and volunteer their time. For them, they say it's about providing the most well-rounded education possible to prepare their kids for the increasingly competitive world their children will face.

"It's all about being a global citizen," said Gerber of her hopes for her own kids and others in the program.

"I've traveled a lot, and in most other countries kids are speaking two languages at least," said Soraya Cullimore, who chairs the Que Tal board of directors.

Now, as the program prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Que Tal is flourishing, and so are the students. "They blossom," said Annie Arguedas-Schmidt, director of curriculum and teaching.

How it works

Que Tal offers an instructional trifecta of native speakers, a strong and structured curriculum, and the consistency that comes from meeting every day of the school week, according to Arguedas.

"Children are not allowed to have the same teacher for more than two years, so that they are not exposed to the same accent," said Arguedas. Indeed, the 16 teachers hail from seven Latin American countries, including Arguedas' native Costa Rica.

Born in Argentina and raised in Venezuela, Guastaferro moved to Minnesota 12 years ago. She sees the benefit for her own children who are both in the program.

Guastaferro realized that it doesn't matter how long she's here, she'll always have an accent. Being exposed to both English and Spanish from such an early age, her children won't have that same problem, she explained.

Cullimore described Que Tal as "the best of both worlds" for parents who want their kids to learn another language, but also understand that kids can sometimes struggle to compete on a certain level in either language.

The curriculum is a combination of a method called total physical response (TPR) and the natural approach, which works much like an immersion program.

"From day one, the teacher speaks Spanish. Everything is in Spanish," Arguedas said.

The idea behind TPR, a technique first used 30 years ago in California, is to start children young with the use of body and non-verbal commands. The teacher can then see right away whether a student understands by his or her physical response.

All students participate in the National Spanish Examination each year, and many do well. Out of the 54 students who took the exam in 2011, 45 received awards.

As eighth-graders, the students take a placement test for high school Spanish. For the first graduating class to complete the program, 11 of 12 students tested into Spanish III, a level otherwise reserved for juniors at Wayzata High School.

It takes a commitment

Students and their parents have to take the program seriously for it to work.

"We had to be clear to parents that we were not a day care," Arguedas said. Like a "little language academy," Que Tal sends report cards home with students. Those who stick with the program continue on through their middle-school years, when the program becomes even more rigorous. "It's definitely a commitment," Arguedas said.

While Que Tal has been approached by other school districts to initiate the program elsewhere, the organizers don't want to spread the program too thin. For now their focus remains on providing a supplement to Spanish language instruction in Wayzata schools.

Arguedas said field trips help students practice their language skills. "We are trying our best to provide field trips so that the children see what they're learning in the classroom is so useful outside of the classroom." Going beyond the high school textbooks used by the middle-schoolers, the group has taken field trips to the District Del Sol in St. Paul.

Like many of the teachers in the program, Guastaferro started out as a substitute teacher. Now in her fifth year as a teacher, her favorite part of the job is interacting with the children and watching as they grow.

"You always begin the year with a lot of expectation, but at the end of the year it's incredible how much they learn and understand," she said. "That's the perfect gift at the end of the year."

Stephanie Audette is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.