Spanish and English: Windom finds symbiosis

New dual-immersion program tilts toward Spanish, but Anglos and Latinos like what they see

"Juntos, juntos trabajamos"

Krista Jibben's kindergarten class sang, "Juntos juntos trabajamos," meaning, "Together we learn, together we play," one late-January morning at Windom Open Elementary, 5821 Wentworth Ave.

The Spanish lyrics are just one of many phrases you hear as students study Spanish and English in Windom's dual-language immersion program. The program, begun last fall, now covers kindergarten and 1st grade and will gradually replace the K-8 school's Open program.

Dual immersion offers Windom the opportunity to reinvent itself and recover lost attendance - as other city schools shut down.

Now, Windom's entrance is like a revolving door with lots of visitors scoping out the program designed to make students bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. Parents, teachers and kids are excited about the change. School officials said Latino families traditionally directed to Windom are now beginning to choose Windom.

Six months into the program, most kindergarteners can count to 31, identify shapes and colors and even string together sentences in both languages. Nearly half of Jibben's students come from Spanish-speaking households, but most of the rest didn't know any Spanish before they stepped into room 103. The classroom also splits between kids whose parents wanted bilingual instruction and those who get it by default because they wanted to attend a school nearby.

Jibben confessed that dual-language teaching was a challenge at first. English-speakers pleaded for an English reading when Jibben started fairy tales in Spanish. But by the second month, kids acclimated, she said. Now they want to speak in Spanish and they're on par with district reading scores for their grade levels.

"I'm amazed at how well they can read and decode in Spanish. They can make connections," said Jibben, who added that the kindergarteners impress the school's older students, too.

The dual-immersion program will expand as the 1st-graders progress, phasing out the Open program that's now in 2nd through 8th grade by one grade level a year.

The dual-immersion switch hasn't yet boosted attendance in a school that often had spaces to fill. This year's kindergarten class totals 42, compared to 40 in 2002-03. In 1st grade, there was a drop-off, from 44 to 36, in part because those kids were Open-program kindergarteners and some families didn't want to make the switch.

During recent years, some parents transferred their students out of Windom because an Spanish-speaking influx made it harder to teach the Open curriculum.

That high Latino enrollment naturally lent itself to the transition to dual-immersion. Empty seats at Windom and a waiting list at another Spanish immersion school, Loring Park's Emerson, also made conversion logical.

Windom differs from Emerson; Students at Windom converse 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English; at Emerson, instruction is 50/50. Windom phases in English so instruction is evenly split in 5th grade.

A symbiotic relationship

Lining Windom's hallway are signs and crayon-colored projects posted with Spanish phrases. Kids speak in Spanish as much as possible, except in subjects such as media, gym and art.

Teachers don't want kids to abandon English and ask that parents read to their children in English. When students work in small groups, or go to lunch or recess, they're free to speak in their most comfortable language.

For some, the Spanish component sounded intimidating, but the University of Minnesota immersion expert Tara Fortune explained that skewing toward the foreign language produces the best test results. Windom based its model on that research. As part of the curriculum, kids sing a lot of songs accompanied by movements so that teachers can "show" them what words mean.

Jibben, who taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Ecuador, said that she's already seen the studies in action. "I feel pretty strongly that this model gives kids a good base in Spanish and English; neither gets compromised," she said.

She adds that Spanish is easier to comprehend because it's phonetic; for example, with single ways to pronounce vowels. Once kids know vowels and their corresponding sounds, they can sound out words and later form sentences, said Jibben.

District World Languages Specialist Gaelle Berg, who helps teachers design curriculum, noted, "Some think that 90/10 [Spanish/English] is counterintuitive, but kids are mastering the regular content, core subjects and another language. Research has found that students in immersion do better on standardized tests than others. Parents want to give their kids the world, and here's one way to do it."

A real context

"It really opens up someone's mind up. It teaches them to think and makes them much more open. It develops their intelligence," said 1st-grade teacher Jim Clark, who speaks Spanish at home because his wife is a Spanish speaker.

Before school started, he said he had reservations about the 90/10 model. Now, he said results are positive because the formula creates a "real" context, an advantage over typical immersion programs.

In such programs, Clark said, "Input comes only from the teacher who creates a false environment. Here, it comes from the students too and goes both ways."

Also, English is the majority language that's ubiquitous in the world outside Windom. "To help kids feel comfortable speaking in Spanish, they need to be in a situation where they feel they need to use it," Clark said.

The model means native Spanish-speakers arrive with an asset instead of something to "fix," Clark said.

Next year's 1st-grade curriculum will be a lot different than this year's, because this year's kindergarteners will have a firm Spanish/English foundation.

Windom tries to have an equal number of native Spanish- and English-speakers in each class. That allows students to piggyback off each other's language background. In some cases, Latinos outshine the others - helping the English speakers with their vocabulary.

Parents react

Such reciprocity reassures parents who were concerned when Windom changed to dual immersion. Many parents said that they've been converted by the outcome.

Latoya Banks, who has one child in the Open program, didn't choose dual immersion when she enrolled her 5-year-old daughter Breyonna at Windom. She didn't think Breyonna would catch on and worried that she wouldn't be able to help with her homework.

However, homework is sent home in both languages. "My daughter is doing excellent. She's learned so much since she's been there. They teach in such a strong way that kids really enjoy it. I recommend it to my girlfriends," Banks said.

Gustavo Castro, whose son is in kindergarten at Windom, is glad the program exists because he believes Latinos should preserve their culture. He meets a lot of Latino children who don't know any Spanish.

Other Latino parents said the program provided Spanish support that before was confined to the home.

Mariana Hernandez and Reyna Luna, who have kids in both the Open and immersion programs, said they see the difference. Those in the immersion program are more successful and are enthusiastic about school. Sometimes their kids even help them translate. Hernandez and Luna are hopeful that, with a bilingual background, their kids will be able to secure better jobs in the future.

Kathy Thompson, who also has children in both programs, said she was scared of the immersion at first but the more she learned about it the more enthusiastic she became, "I think it's really important for kids to be bilingual these days. This is a great way to do that. It's a two for one," said Thompson.

Language barriers

There are still challenges ahead, as the school strives to hang onto a stable student population through 8th grade. Such stability might become more difficult as the program extends into later grades, because it will be harder to transfer in without the language training.

To compensate for possible future losses, Windom starts out with more kindergarten classes than they need, expecting that some students will transfer out.

Generating enough interest wasn't easy, "I think the biggest hurdle was letting people know that we exist," said Windom Principal Dr. Jean Neuman.

Neuman would also like to expand Windom's attendance area to all of South Minneapolis, including east of I-35W.

To spread the word, the school has revamped its Web site, and reached out to daycares, churches, fairs and the area's Latino businesses.

Neuman said another difficulty is retaining quality teachers who speak Spanish and have the appropriate licensure and tenure - especially since Windom teachers still don't have all of their Spanish materials in hand from the District yet.