MINNETONKA — If you closed your eyes and listened to the students’ voices, you’d think you were in China or Spain.
That’s what’s going on at various schools within the Minnetonka School District, which has the state’s largest Chinese and Spanish language immersion programs.
And now those pioneering immersion students who started in 2008 are graduating from Minnetonka High School.
“It was very hard at the beginning. I had no idea what the teacher was saying then,” said Jimmy Gammill.
He was one of four MHS seniors recently interviewed by Lakeshore Weekly News. They spent their entire first-12 school years in the immersion program.
“But through it all, we developed a certain problem-solving skill from a young age; something that you definitely need in life,” added Gammill, who is in the Spanish program and who also has three younger siblings in the program. “It helped learning how to be confident and independent; to be open minded. You never know where it might lead.”
The school district launched its immersion program in 2007-08 for students in kindergarten and first grade. At the June 6 graduation, there will be 17 students who stayed with the Mandarin program and 56 who stayed with the Spanish program for their entireties, according to Jodi Siegel, the high school’s immersion lead for both languages.
“It just keeps getting stronger,” said Siegel. “We’re very proud of our students; the skills they have built and the program they helped create.”
The K-12 immersion program currently has 1,003 students in the Chinese language and 2,903 students in Spanish. The district’s student enrollment is 10,852, according to district officials.
The other seniors interviewed — Abri Click (Spanish immersion), and Isabelle Pagano and Luca Vereecken (both Chinese immersion) — along with Gammill, are excited to see how their language skills will aid them in their future endeavors, and also feel honored to assist the district in improving the immersion programs.
“I want to leave a legacy here,” Click said. “We have the ability to make the program better and that goes a long way for the immersion program.”
“We’ve done a lot of work with Ms. Siegel, who has worked so hard for this program, to navigate for the classes behind us,” said Pagano. “When we leave this program, we want to leave it better than when we started.”
Each of the four said their parents enrolled them in the programs with little or no discussion.
“We were literally just thrown into the language,” Click said when asked if she recalled what it was like starting the language challenge in first grade. “I remember just looking around, trying to figure out what the teacher was saying. We all just stared at her blankly because we didn’t know what she was saying.
“Then one day in first grade, it all just clicked in understanding,” she added. “Now, when I hear Spanish, it’s like I hear English. It’s the weirdest thing; the coolest ability to have. When I hear it, I just hear it. When I want to speak it, I just speak it. When I see it, I just read it.”
Vereecken, whose parents are from Belgium, also speaks French and Dutch.
“I didn’t have much of a choice whether I was going to be in the program,” he said. “I remember going the first day and wondering what am I going to be experiencing here? It’s kind of been like opening my mind to a whole new world.
“I’m really glad I stayed with it over the years because of the opportunities that this will open up in the future,” Vereecken said, adding that he had no exposure to the Chinese language and its culture before the immersion program.
Vereecken expects knowing the language and culture of China will assist him in his education and career endeavors.
Each of the four spoke of how members of the immersion program have become like family; sharing struggles as well as cultural trips abroad.
“We’ve learned to just jump into something; to find the ability to adapt and thrive in an environment,” Pagano said. “It’s an experience all about growth, not just in language, but in personal growth. You learn to take on challenges and be your own person.”
“We’ve had a small group of people who will be friends forever because of our shared experience,” she said, with Click adding: “Immersion is family.”
Students in the program speak only the foreign language in the early school years, but then English is added along with other programming as students progress through the elementary and older grades.
High school immersion students routinely visit and interact with immersion students in the elementary grades.
“I’m tutoring kindergarteners whose teacher is teaching them about the solar system,” Pagano said. “These kids are amazing. They were telling me words I didn’t know and they’re 5 years old. It is such a sense of pride that it’s developed so well.”
Rayen Inostroza, a MHS Spanish teacher from Chile, was a student teacher three years ago in the immersion program and is now in her first year as a full-time instructor at the school.
“This immersion program is so amazing,” she said. “You have so many experiences and the lessons are very, very flexible so the students have whatever they need to learn.”
The district has 157 people teaching in the immersion program, according to district officials. At the middle and high school levels, some instructors are teaching immersion courses and other world language courses for non-immersion students.
MHS Principal Jeff Erickson, a Spanish teacher at the school when the immersion program started, is amazed at what the students, teachers, staff and parents have accomplished via the program over the years.
“This has been a partnership,” he said. “There is tremendous pride when I hear these students speak. They made a commitment to be part of the program for 12 years and they’ve excelled at it. I am amazed at what they can do.”
Each of the high school students interviewed mentioned how the immersion program has helped them obtain a more global-minded ideology, where they examine the culture, values and other aspects of other countries.
This was one of the goals when the immersion program started, according to Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson.
“This has been important to students because we’re at a point where a second language is very critical to people in society,” he said during a recent interview at Minnetonka Middle School West. “We wanted Spanish because there are a lot of opportunities in America to use Spanish, and, of course, Chinese is the most common language in the world. We wanted our students to be able to navigate in that, in the commercial world and other areas.”
Peterson, who has been superintendent for 18 years, said the “school within a school” model, where certain classrooms at the various schools are designated for immersion programming, has worked well.
“What surprised us was the level of interest,” he said. “When it started, we thought we might have to combine classes from different elementary schools, but almost from the word go, we had the classrooms filled.”
Peterson saluted parents for putting their young children in a program where all they would hear is a second language for the first few years of school, adding: “It’s not for everybody.”
The program has been beneficial for the district in another way, bringing in an estimated $125 million in state aid since its inception, and costing the district about $30 million in expenses over the same period, according to Peterson.
“It has brought in money to help us do other things,” Peterson said, adding that students from 43 other districts are open enrolled at Minnetonka for the immersion and other programs. Some students come from as far away as Albert Lea and Brainerd.
“They believe it’s worth the trouble,” Peterson said about those who elect to have their children in the Minnetonka district for the immersion and other programs. “We have a high-quality program already in place here, so people trust what we are doing.”