January 20, 2005 at 8:32 a.m.
The founders of Lakes International Spanish Immersion School and the families of the 177 children now enrolled are actively pursuing an educational experience beyond the norm. In this case children from kindergarten age through fourth grade are learning to speak, think and imagine in Spanish. Posters, books, games are in Spanish. The teachers holding class read aloud in Spanish and direct the children (chicos) at their tasks en Espanol.
The term immersion is exactly that. Ideally, students will enter at kindergarten. They don’t know Spanish, but the teacher starts from day one speaking in Spanish. Students are encouraged to speak among themselves in Spanish, and incentives are utilized, but English is not forbidden by any means.
By the time the student exits the school at fifth grade or thereabouts-- they naturally communicate in Spanish and have a comprehensive background in the culture and society.
Immersion teachers are trained in how to be extra -demonstrative in their lessons. As the tour last week wound through the facility, instructors could be seen almost acting out the language in their classrooms. They used props, they drew on the board, and according to the tour host that day, “The kids get it...they don’t freak out.”
Parent-volunteer and school coordinator Shannon Peterson told the visitor group, “You’d be amazed after just these first few months how much of the language they have picked up and use freely.”
Of course this first year is unique in that few of the students entering the school had real skills in Spanish. By the end of the year though, the goal is only Spanish will be heard in the building.
“At this point we are still building vocabulary,” Peterson added. The largest collection of pupils is in the kindergarten, with 80 pupils in four sections. There is interest in offering a beginning first grade section for next year, and families should contact the school about enrolling their first-grader.
Peterson explained that you start second language students young because research shows that anywhere between age 8 and puberty the ability to accurately pickup the (Spanish) accent becomes strained.
Peterson is a certified public school teacher and is one of the founding families of the academy.
She said about three years’ of work led up to opening the facility, which is located in the south end of what used to be Forest Lake’s District Memorial Hospital. The school has a year lease with Fairview. Also at the same general site is a Fairview training and personnel office, and North Ambulance garage.
Attempts to get the academy into a Forest Lake School District building were not successful, but Peterson points out that this was actually a good thing. The charter school is thriving where it is--and the Forest Lake District has built a good relationship with Lakes International.
Forest Lake buses transport the Lakes International pupils, school nurse and special education services come through the district and lunches are supplied by Forest Lake Food Service.
“Even though it didn’t work out for them to sponsor us we cooperate on a number of things and we have gotten good support from the district,” Peterson stressed.
The Lakes International charter is legally “sponsored” by the Minnesota Department of Education.
By their very nature charter schools as organizations are highly personalized, independent and a little bit courageous.
While charter schools are not a brand new concept (the first in Minnesota opened 14 years ago) the schools can’t help being in a spotlight because they offer a specialized experience to select participants.
They do, however, have to prove through tests and assessments that their students achieve accepted standards of learning skills in order to receive state and federal funding.
As Peterson noted Lakes International Language Academy has many freedoms that regular public schools do not enjoy, but, “...with the freedom comes responsibility.”
She shared some anecdotes and said this first year has been a rewarding foray into mastering the operations, logistics, and yes, the politics inherent in running any “school.”
For instance, the academy parent-teacher organization does much of the fundraising and debate has surfaced already, about using resources most effectively.
As a publicly-funded school, Lakes International receives the base pupil unit state aid that any Minnesota school gets. A federal start-up grant was also used for buying new computers and other supplies.
The academy will administer the tests that other schools are required to, and the springtime third grade MCAs are up next. The difference at Lakes International is, of course, the skills have been acquired in Spanish. Peterson said for the first time ever in Minnesota Lakes Intl. is joining with five language immersion schools in assessing all language skill acquisition. A review of those scores will be released later.
Lakes International Director Cam Hedlund has 30 years of public school system teaching and administration behind him.
He explains, “We use well known curriculum to hit the skills in sequence, but we are not tied to a set series of stand-alone lesson plans. We try to make it all inter-connected and show the purpose behind what the student is learning.”
Peterson added that research done of other language immersion school students shows that English skills do not suffer.
“These kids are already getting a lot of English at home,” she explained. They are read to daily, they work on spelling and hone language skills outside of the school. Peterson commented that 80 to 90 percent of parents of immersion students do not speak the target language at-home, so it isn’t like English evaporates from their lives.
Teachers also give students specific instruction on homework, and students begin homework at school so they know what’s expected. “We do not rely on parents knowing the work,” Peterson added.
Lakes International has all-day, every other day kindergarten because that’s what Forest Lake School District offers.
The district busing schedule dictates the academy day which begins at 8 a.m. and runs to 2:05 p.m.
A lottery for 2005--2006 students was set to be held late last week for those who have already applied. If you are interested in enrolling a child you should contact the school to see if spots remain open.
Four sections of kindergarten are planned on being offered next year maxed at 20 students in each section. Upper grades are kept to a 23 pupil maximum in each section.
Call 651-466-0585 or go to www.lakesinternational.org.
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