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Rochester schools to start Spanish immersion program

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Rochester Public Schools is proposing to introduce a dual-language Spanish-English immersion program at Gage Elementary School that would be open to all of the district's incoming kindergartners next fall, administrators say.

Such a program would be the first of its kind in Rochester schools, although immersion programs have been spreading across the state. Spanish-English immersion programs are classrooms in which students are taught in both Spanish and English. The proposed school-within-a-school would serve both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, officials say.

"We want to make sure that we still provide the foundational skills for learners, so that the reading skills, the math skills, all the foundational skills are provided to them, but we also want to appreciate and celebrate the spirit of the Spanish language," said Jayne Gibson, executive director of curriculum and instruction.

The number of kindergartner openings would be limited. The idea is to start modestly with two sections of kindergarten students — about 40 students — and build the program one grade at a time each year after that, even as the first cohort of students progresses through each grade.

Such dual language programs have been taking root in districts across the state for years, driven in part by changing demographics and increasing ethnic diversity. There are 85 immersion programs in Minnesota, with more than half being Spanish, according to a Star Tribune article. Most are located at the elementary school level, but many are spreading to the middle and high schools as well.

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Northfield Public Schools began its two-way immersion program at one elementary school 20 years ago. Today, it is in all three elementary schools, with one section of Compañeros in each grade level from first through fifth grade.

"With our community, there's just a lot of people who like the idea that students can be exposed to a second language, especially at the elementary level where typically research would say it's easier to acquire that second language," Northfield Superintendent Chris Richardson said.

Officials say Gage was chosen as the site of the program because of its status as a racially isolated school — where minority enrollment is 20 percentage points higher than comparable schools in the district (Gage is 41 percent white and 59 percent minority).

Rochester gets extra integration revenue from the state, but it also must show the state how it intends to spend those dollars. One element of Rochester's integration plan is to develop programming that can draw students to Gage from outside its attendance boundaries, officials say.

A similar motivation was at work two years ago when Gagewent to all-day kindergarten, a program that succeeded in attracting students from across the district and now has a waiting list. Officials hope a dual-language immersion program will generate similar interest. If more kindergartners are signed up than Gage's 40 allotted spaces, a waiting list would be developed.

"This is our next step," Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis said. "That's why we did the all-day K, and now, we're looking at the dual immersion program."

Outside of English, Spanish is second only to Somali as the most prevalent language spoken in the homes of students in Olmsted County, with 1,005 Somali-speaking students and 1,003 Spanish-speaking students.

Rochester will get its first idea of the program's popularity at its Kick-Off to Kindergarten Open House held from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Northrop Education Center. That event is geared toward parents with children entering kindergarten in 2014. Another important date is Jan. 2, when kindergarten registration opens.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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