Windom school begins new chapter ?? in Spanish

There are 44 kindergarten students and 44 1st graders signed up for the new dual Spanish immersion program that will open Sept. 1 at the renamed Windom Dual Spanish Immersion and Open School, 5821 Wentworth Ave. S.

The program is unique among the city's 22 K-8 schools -- and among its language immersion programs -- because kindergarten and 1st-grade curriculum is taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. Children are first taught to read Spanish for two years, not English; their class instruction, discussion and classroom posters will all by in Spanish.

Kyle Samijima, a Windom parent whose English-speaking kindergarten daughter will be in the first dual-immersion class, said, "One of the interesting things about the program is that Spanish-speaking kids can come in and are the experts right away. They do not come into kindergarten with this liability of not knowing English."

But what about English-speaking kids who might feel lost? Dr. Tara Fortune, a University of Minnesota language education expert who helped design Windom's curriculum, said dual immersion benefits English-speaking students because they process subject matter through a language they are still acquiring.

"Research shows there are cognitive benefits, in that there is actually an enhancement of the student's thinking skills," Fortune said.

"Think about how you are required to attend to information when you are not sure what every word means," she said. "Students schooled through a second language in an immersion environment like Windom's actually develop a higher level of nonverbal problem-solving skills as a result of the way they are being schooled."

Windom's English content increases 10 percent each school year until by 5th grade it is 50-50.

The ideal is that by the time these students graduate after 8th grade, they will be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural in English and Spanish.

About 50 percent of the incoming students are Spanish-speakers and 50 percent are English-speakers. Both groups will learn side-by-side -- considered critical in a dual-immersion model. Its emphasis is based on integrating a new language, not segregating the original one.

Samijima is confident her daughter and her Spanish-speaking classmates will thrive. "There is a lot of research that shows that Spanish-speaking kids learn English faster and better when they get that solid grasp of Spanish first. Kids only learn to read once. We are doing literacy in Spanish first to get that solid foundation in the minority language really strong and then the English skills will follow right along."

Windom's is the second Spanish immersion program in Minneapolis; the first is at Emerson Spanish Immersion, 1421 Spruce Pl. However, there are some important differences between the two schools, said Fortune, the immersion projects coordinator at the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.

"One of the key differences is that Emerson has been a 50 percent English and 50 Spanish program right from the beginning, so that students, even when they come into kindergarten, are only receiving 50 percent of the instructional time in the minority language, Spanish," Fortune said. "That instructional model is kept throughout the duration of the program."

"Another difference is that Emerson has a disproportionate number of English speakers in the program, while Windom will be balanced between 50-50 English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students," she said.

Windom was picked for the curriculum because Emerson has a waiting list and Windom already has a large Spanish-speaking population -- approximately 42 percent last year. Districtwide, 13 percent of students are Spanish-speakers.

Another reason Windom was chosen: it had unfilled slots in its open curriculum. The school had seen an influx of Spanish-speaking students in recent years, and some Windom parents had left the program, saying the language barrier stressed the Open School model.

Windom's 2nd- through 8th-graders will continue in the open curriculum, but it will phase out as this year's kindergarteners and 1st graders advance.

Windom Principal Jean Neuman said that the new K-1 program's slots filled easily after the school held informational meetings explaining to parents how the program would work for young learners.

The school will hire a full-time bilingual kindergarten teacher, a full-time bilingual 1st-grade teacher and a part-time Spanish language cultural arts specialist, all of whom are certified by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

According to Gaelle Berg, a district world languages curriculum specialist, dual-immersion may be the practical way for a cash-strapped district to teach foreign languages. She said that, these days, many schools do not have the budget for foreign-language teachers. However, Windom's classroom teachers deliver the foreign language, making its instruction affordable without taking time away from other subjects.

Berg said the curriculum is also just. "The democratic thing about the dual immersion is that you are taking not just English speakers and giving them another language -- you are giving the Spanish speaking kids their language, culture and background."

But will those advantages show up in 3rd-grade test scores that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law demands?

Neuman -- who takes a dim view of standardized tests in general and NCLB in particular -- conceded that the test scores of Windom 3rd-graders might be below district-average in the coming years because of dual immersion.

"From what I read, there will be a dip in their test score performance," said Neuman, who is entering her fourth year as Windom's principal. "But we expect that because the test is only done in English and our students will be spending the majority of their time learning Spanish."

"From what we've read in the literature and the research, [scores] accelerate in the fifth year and then the standardized testing scores for kids in such a program go higher as the kids get older," she said.

One of the hardest parts of the school's transition is losing well-liked faculty such as kindergarten teacher Kathleen Watson, who could not stay because she was not a certified Spanish-speaker. As the school adds an additional grade each year, other veteran teachers may have to leave the school.

However, staff mainstays such as Steve Date and Becky Glass -- who are not fluent in Spanish but have been at the school for more than 10 years -- may not be affected, since by the time the Spanish-speaking students reach their 4th- and 5th-grade classes, the curriculum will be 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent English.

Asked if she speaks fluent Spanish, Neuman answered "un poquito [a little], even though I was fluent many years ago."