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Immigrant groups seek new language-immersion programs in diverse Osseo schools

Growth of language immersion schools in Minnesota from 1976 to 2016.
Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network
Growth of language immersion schools in Minnesota from 1976 to 2016.

There are lots of ways for students to gain exposure to a second language in school. Going the traditional route, students can study a foreign language through an elective course, progressing to higher levels over the years. For students who qualify for English Learner services, schools offer mandated supports and programming to help these students gain fluency in English.

There’s a third route that’s a bit of a hybrid approach. Through immersion programs, students typically receive instruction for subjects like math, reading and science in a language other than English — with Spanish, French and Mandarin being the three most popular offerings in Minnesota — and spend time during art, music and other subjects speaking and learning in English.

Within immersion programs, some aim to strike a balance between the number of native and non-native speakers enrolled. Others cater more to immigrant populations, creating an environment where they can prioritize strengthening ties to their linguistic and cultural heritage while simultaneously chipping away at English language acquisition.

As immigrant communities continue to grow across the state — and as awareness of the need for more globally minded, multilingual employees in the local economy expands — more and more districts are looking to establish immersion programs.

Research has long shown the benefits of language immersion on student learning. But for some immigrant advocates, it’s increasingly become a matter of equity. Offering immigrant students an immersion experience — as opposed to a stand-alone elective language class — sends the message that schools truly see the value of their native language, some advocates say. In the Osseo Area Schools district, for example, parents are gearing up to advocate this fall for the adoption of a handful of dual language programs. Reflective of student demographics, that wish list will likely include languages that aren’t typically taught in school immersion programs, like Somali, Hmong and Vietnamese.

Minnesota has a longstanding history of being a national leader in immersion education, but those who have already walked this path caution isn’t not always easy to get started, especially when it comes to advocating for lesser-known languages.

A look at Osseo

Fata Acquoi, educational organizer for a nonprofit affinity group called African Immigrant Services (AIS), has her finger on the pulse of the immigrant parent population in the Osseo public school district. Most recently, she helped gather parent input on the creation of the district’s first racial equity policy, which passed last November.

She says the group is in the midst of finalizing its parent-driven agenda this fall. It will include a push to establish some dual-language programs in the district as a top priority, alongside a few other items like diversifying the teacher workforce. In the next month or so, they’ll finalize which languages to prioritize. Right now, Acquoi says, Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Vietnamese appear to be the frontrunners, based on the size of each minority student population.

Beyond the academic benefits, Acquoi says, parents are interested in using dual-language programs as a way to reshape the narrative around non-native English speakers, from one that’s deficit-based to one that’s asset-based.

“When you have curriculum provided by ... a multilingual teacher that works in your system and you do dual-language programs, you’re integrating those languages. You’re including those languages. You’re unifying educational experiences for all your students,” she said, adding that dual-language courses signal an important message to students. “We believe in inclusivity. We believe in equity. We believe that both of these can work together.”

The Osseo school district is the fifth largest district in the state. It serves a population that’s 55 percent students of color, with black students accounting for nearly one-fourth. Asian, American Indian, biracial and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students represent the remainder of that diversity. These students speak more than 80 languages or dialects other than English at home.

Barb Olson, director of communications for the Osseo district, says staff have begun fielding inquiries and suggestions from community members who have expressed interested in having a dual language or immersion program. But the district “has no plans to develop a dual language program at this time.”

Rather, they are looking to develop some new language course offerings for native speakers. The Spanish for native speakers that was established last year has been expanded, so secondary students can enroll in a level 2 offering this fall. This new course will roll out alongside a level 1 Hmong for native speakers course. And there’s already a proposal to add a second level next year, Olson said.

An intensive undertaking

Those looking to establish a dual-language program that focuses on a lesser-known language don’t have to look far for insight on what, exactly, that will entail. St. Paul Public Schools district staff and teachers are still chipping away at developing a Hmong dual-language immersion curriculum for students at Jackson Elementary and the Phalen Lake Hmong Studies schools.

While the majority of students enrolled in the program identify as Hmong-American, it’s open to all students. When students start out at the kindergarten level, they spend the vast majority of the day receiving instruction in Hmong. By the time they reach fourth grade, that breakdown levels out so about half their day is conducted in English and half in Hmong. To be considered a dual-language program, at least half of the daily instruction must be delivered in the non-English language. 

Even though the program started small in 2002 and grew gradually over the years, staff had to build the programming from scratch because it wasn’t something they could simply purchase or copy from another district, anywhere.

Teachers in the program are constantly translating books from English to Hmong. After laboring over the various Hmong dialects and words that simply don’t translate, they often resorting to pasting these translations over the English text, says Efe Agbamu, an assistant superintendent of elementary education for the district.

For now, the impact is largely anecdotal. As they look ahead, says Agbamu, they’re hoping to dig into student data to see how those enrolled in the dual-language program may be benefiting academically. Guided by research-based evidence and student testimony, they are confident this program is giving first- and second-generation Hmong students something a mainstream education or a piecemeal Hmong language class here and there couldn’t: a stronger sense of cultural identity and, with that, the self-confidence needed to excel in all academics.

“It’s to say to our students, ‘Your language, your culture, is important. We value the Hmong language. We value the Hmong culture. We value English. So we’re gonna give you lessons in both,’ ” Agbamu said. “And it’s to sustain the language too, because a lot of our parents who are sending their children have given up the language.”

The immersion landscape

The St. Paul district is home to the state’s first immersion program: a Spanish program that launched in 1986. Today, it has the most comprehensive menu of language offerings — ranging from Spanish and French to more endangered languages like Dakota, Ojibwe and Hmong — says Colleen Simmons, senior chair of the Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network, a nonprofit that leads professional development offerings for educators who are interested in the immersion movement.

The majority of these programs — which now total more than 70 — received guidance from language experts at the University of Minnesota, which is home to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), a nationally recognized research hub.

Tara Fortune, immersion program director at CARLA, has been tracking the proliferation and academic impact of immersion programs in Minnesota from the start. In the beginning, lots of Spanish and French programs got their start with the help of desegregation grants that were used to create language-focused magnet schools — the thought being districts could use language immersion to attract families back to schools that had become segregated.

As words spread among communities, parents in the suburbs began asking district leaders to establish immersion programs as well, in places like Edina, Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park, Fortune says.

With interest growing, she joined CARLA full time in 2002 to support immersion programs. Interest in foreign language acquisition had already picked up a bit after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she said. A few years later, the federal government began pushing Mandarin immersion programs, along with other languages deemed critical, like Russian, Hindi and Arabic. During this same period, schools that weren’t offering immersion programs yet realized they were losing students to neighboring districts that did, Fortune said. So many decided to get on board to retain their student population.

Various models have been used over the years, but Fortune and her colleagues are proponents of the dual-language model, which is set up to teach bilingualism and biliteracy. Other programs may offer some instruction in a language like Somali or Spanish, but mastery of English is still the ultimate goal.

Asked how likely it seems that lesser-known languages like Somali or Hmong will develop into full-blown dual immersion programs in districts like Osseo, which are becoming more and more diverse, Fortune cautioned that finding the right mix of families — both those who are native speakers and those whose primary language is English — can be a real challenge.

“A challenge with languages like Somali are there’s not enough English home-language families that are interested in having their child develop Somali as a second language,” she said. “The reason we’ve been able to pull Hmong off in St. Paul is because of the second [wave] of Hmong refugees that came. ... Half are recent refugees and the others are English-speaking earlier refugees. [The St. Paul district] seized that kind of moment in time to create something unique.”

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Comments (3)

Immersion programs

It's about time Minnesota schools offer more language immersion. I came to the U.S. in 1955, did not speak English but learned quickly. My classmates laughed at me for speaking Mandarin Chinese and bullied me because they can do that. Now I'm laughing at them because they're not bilingual. Minnesota students who are bilingual because of language immersion will have a head start in many jobs and other academic programs.

My paternal grandparents came

My paternal grandparents came from Norway and settled in a small town in northern Minnesota where they were the only Norwegians. They spoke Norwegian at home till my oldest aunt started school. Her teacher was horrified that she couldn't speak English and went to my grandparents' home demanding that they speak only English at home from now on. They complied. My father, two years younger, retained a vague passive knowledge of Norwegian but always regretted that he had been denied the opportunity to learn to speak it well.

There are a lot of horror stories from that era. When I lived on the East Coast, a neighbor told me about her father's experiences in school. One of his teachers had told her predominantly Jewish students that their native Yiddish wasn't even a real language, just "an ignorant peddler's jargon," and that they should be ashamed to speak it. Cajun students in Louisiana were punished for speaking French, even as high schools and colleges in wealthier parts of the state strove to teach their Anglo students to speak French.

And of course, dozens, if not hundreds of Native American languages are dead or dying because of deliberate efforts to eradicate tribal cultures and estrange young Native Americans from their elders. Children would be taken from the reservations to distant boarding schools, forced to speak only English, not allowed to return home for years at a time, and graduated from the system "educated" only for low-status jobs, and sometimes unable to talk to their own parents. They were no longer fully versed in their ancestral culture nor fully qualified to participate in the dominant white culture.

I'm glad that we are more enlightened about these matters now. Still, Middle America's weird attitudes toward foreign language instruction persist. They think foreign languages are so difficult that only a genius could learn to speak a second language proficiently, but they expect immigrants to speak English the minute they arrive, even though they themselves are likely to complain, "I took French/Spanish/German for two years in high school, and I still can't speak it."

Worries about Spanish or any other language displacing English are unfounded. Latino immigrants seem to be following the pattern of all other ethnic groups. Those who come to America as adults usually speak little or no English unless they learned it before they came, their children are bilingual with a preference for English, and their grandchildren are definitely English-dominant, especially if the second generation has married outside the group.

If you are a student in a Minnesota public

school you should be fluent in English and if you can learn a second language good for you. Learning Somali for a Hmong child who doesn't speak English is silly. Group think has never worked in education, every child is a bit different and may need some special attention.