La ola del lago opened in 2014 as the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District’s first immersion program and buzzed with potential.

Families quickly enrolled their children in the Spanish immersion program that promised in its mission that “students will reach their full potential through their unique learning styles.”

Now in its fifth year, the program’s academic foundation is showing cracks. At least six parents have said their students are receiving “meets expectations” marks in the program without meeting the academic achievements of even a basic elementary program. They point to delayed reading, writing and math abilities in English, Spanish or both even by third and fourth grade.

“Unfortunately there are many students who’s needs are not being met,” said Diana Lillicrap, who enrolled her daughter in the school’s pioneer class and served as one of the co-presidents of the Parent Teacher Committee. She recently removed her daughter from the program this year over concerns about her middle-school readiness.

“(Parents) are having to make the tough choices like I did, to leave the school to get their kids what they need,” she said.

Some of the parents said if they aren’t removing their child, they’re working to supplement the gaps, putting hundreds, if not thousands of extra dollars into tutors, classes, reading materials and summer education programs to try and keep their children on track.

The program’s administration said while testing data for the school initially showed students underperforming against the district average in math and reading, as the program continues, scores are nearing expected results and in some areas have begun to exceed their peers' performance.

Principal Richie Kucinski said all of the testing trends are to be expected with a young immersion program.

“We tell parents up front that standardized test scores in second, third grade may trend a little bit lower,” Kucinski said. “There’s decades of research that show that immersion kiddos, in the English standardized test scores usually in second and third grade are lower. So it’s expected.”

A fledgling program takes flight

The Spanish immersion program was born out of a particular moment in the district’s history as increased money at the state level went into elementary education. As Minnesota passed measures for free all-day kindergarten, the district decided to make yearslong conversations about an immersion program a reality.

In December 2013, the Prior Lake Savage Area School Board unanimously voted to start an all-day Spanish immersion program at Edgewood Elementary School with a pioneering class of kindergartners. The district planned to add one grade level each year through fifth grade and promised students would work towards the same academic standards as their English-elementary counterparts.

Former Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver said at the time that “having options for families is important. We know that’s a high value for our families. [Spanish immersion] just gives them one more choice, and I believe it’s a really positive one.”

Almost 60 families expressed interest in the program almost as soon as it was announced. When the doors opened on the program in the fall of 2014, there were four kindergarten classrooms of 64 kids. Today the program is home to almost 350 students in grades K-4.

“It has been an amazing adventure,” Kucinski said. “It has been amazing to see the students, the teachers, the community and the families, No. 1, embrace it and to continue to see it thrive.

“And then just to really see the demand increase,” Kucinski continued. “There’s been numerous families that have actually moved into the district to ensure that they have a spot at La ola del lago.”

The district plans to move La ola del lago to Grainwood Elementary School in 2020 for more space.

Students last week worked their way through math and reading lessons, flitting back and forth between Spanish and English. In one class, kids worked in small reading and writing groups, coaxing each other in English through a Spanish workbook. And in another, children bounced on exercise balls as they worked on virtual lessons on their tablets.

Kucinski said that next school year will be the first that the kindergarten is full of resident families.

There is a devotion to immersion education within the school. Families talk of a close-knit community where children flourish by learning about global cultures and viewpoints at home in their own district.

“We chose La ola del lago because we wanted (our daughter) to develop fluency in another language, a deep sense of respect and appreciation for other cultures and the unique academic development that occurs in immersion,” Emily Gillespie said in a statement to the school board in March. Gillespie’s daughter is enrolled as a fourth grader at the school and was part of the program’s pioneering class.

“The positive energy in the school is hard to describe if you haven’t been there,” she said. “The school has an energy and enthusiasm that is unmatched by the elementaries our older daughter attended.”

Students said they enjoy the ways they’re being linked to other people and places around the world as well. One second grader recounted how on family trips to Mexico, she is the only member of her family to can converse with ease. Another said he hopes to continue Spanish even after he completes his time at La ola del lago.

Darkening mood

Families at the school said they’ve bonded over the experience of introducing immersion education to the district. While some chalk that sensation up to being part of the beginning of a program, others have come to view it as a bond borne through enduring a program still trying to find its feet.

Several families have brought their concerns to the district many times since the program opened, but most recently at school board meetings running from December 2018 to this month.

Some parents pointed to the school’s testing data from the state’s Measure of Academic Progress Testing and Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments as evidence that something in the program’s curriculum or methodology is off.

The program’s original class has trailed their district counterparts on every MAP math and reading assessment until this year — at times creating an up to 33 percentage point gap in the percentage of students meeting state reading and math standards and the percentage of students across the district meeting the same standards.

Up until the fall 2018 MAP assessment, current third-graders were also performing behind their district peers by large margins. Scores last fall neared or exceeded district averages in several subjects. 

Parents say that the program is pushing forward without reflection. The students impacted most by this decision are the program’s pioneering class. In this school year, the fourth-grade class has lost seven students from the 60 that started the year, according to former members of the PTC.

Parents said even a small number of departures are unusual among a highly involved group of families.

“Four of the people have been on the PTC board over the years,” Lillicrap said. “They are people that have 100 percent gone all in on this school and still have not gotten what they need out of it.”

Educational issues have reached a point where parents have begun to mobilize for program changes. A petition on Change.org currently signed by 51 parents calls for an independent audit of the program by services like those offered at the Center for Applied Linguistics. The petition emphasizes a need for “an immediate and unbiased evaluation” of the school.

Both parents that have spoken out in concern and support of the school had said they would appreciate an audit. Despite this, the school board and school administration have decided not to invite external auditors to the school.

“We kind of do our own internal audits,” Kucinski said. “I’m proud to say that we are seeing our students achieve high levels, and we have seen our student achievement data continue to rise. So at this time, I don’t think there’s a need for it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Former Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver's name and incorrectly identified Richie Kucinski's title at La ola del lago. The article has also been updated to include testing data that shows students have recently begun to surpass their district peers on state tests.

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