Charter school focuses on language immersion

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rhonda Broussard grew up in Louisiana, with grandparents who spoke Creole and French.

Her parents, however, spoke French only in bits and pieces.

“They could sing songs and maybe curse — the important things,” Broussard said. “The language was dying out among their generation.”

Broussard was captivated by the “joy” she saw in her grandmother’s use of different languages. She was troubled by the prospect of these languages falling into disuse.

Her childhood fascination was the spark that ignited a career in language education. Broussard would go on to teach French all over the United States, eventually moving to St. Louis in 2006, where she continued her education at Washington University.

Once here, Broussard noticed a void in local language education.

“I couldn’t figure out why there were no language immersion (programs) in St. Louis,” she said.

The concept behind immersion instruction is simple: students speak the language they are studying from the minute they enter the school to the minute they depart.

This kind of total exposure is effective; Broussard said kindergarten students in an immersion program are typically more fluent than high school students who take language courses part-time over four years.

But immersion education had not taken hold in St. Louis.

“It was unusual,” Broussard said. “Kansas City had it for 15 years. Milwaukee for 30 years.”

Broussard decided to make inquiries, canvassing the “mom network” — playgrounds, the YMCA, tumbling classes.

What she heard intrigued her.

So Broussard decided to enlist the help of others to open the St. Louis Immersion Language Schools, a tuition-free public charter school.

After several years of fundraising, the school enrolled its first kindergarten classes in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood in 2009.

The school now has 350 students in grades K-2. About half study French; the other half are enrolled in the school’s Spanish program.

The students, who wear fancy blazers and ties, come from 39 different zip codes in the St. Louis area.

To qualify for the school, students must either live in the city or live in a county school district that participates in voluntary desegregation. About 90 percent of the school’s students hail from the city.

“We get them from every corner of St. Louis,” said Broussard, the school’s president.

Second-grade student Xenaira Arguedas is one of Broussard’s star pupils.

She’s already tri-lingual, speaking Spanish and English at home and French at school.

“I think it’s more fun when you know more than one language,” Xenaira said. “I speak a little French with my dad. He’s taking classes, too.”

Xenaira hopes to put her skills to use one day by visiting France.

That kind of practical application is one of the advantages immersion learning offers. By immersing students in language and emphasizing other cultures, the school gives them a leg up in future job or educational opportunities.

This eye on practicality is one of the reasons school officials decided to offer Mandarin Chinese and Japanese immersion programs beginning in 2012.

“We’re really excited about that,” Broussard said. “It’s going to be something totally different.”

Ultimately, plans call for the school to feature eight language programs, with Farsi, Arabic, Russian and German added over time. Broussard is confident the demand is there.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to set themselves apart,” she said.

Students at the school study a standard curriculum, with a few exceptions. Yoga, for instance, is a required course.

Broussard said kids are kids in any language.

“They’ll write plays and songs about Justin Bieber, but in Spanish,” she said. “That’s what’s on their mind. The girls write love songs to Justin Bieber and the boys write about him blowing up.”

Broussard said it takes about two years for students to achieve full fluency.

The school is in the process of hiring new personnel for the Japanese and Mandarin programs. Parents will be able to enroll in October.

Currently, the school employs 17 teachers, 17 classroom assistants and 10 specialist teachers for its 350 students.

Sara Seitz is one of them. Seitz, a Peruvian who moved to St. Louis by way of San Francisco, teaches kindergarten Spanish. She said it’s remarkable how fast her students grasp the new language.

“After three weeks, I reduce the usage of English to zero percent,” she said. “And they do great.”

Seitz plans to enroll both of her sons in the school’s Mandarin program next year. But Seitz, who speaks a bit of Japanese and is learning Italian, says she won’t encourage them to stop there. She wants her sons to be as multi-lingual as possible.

“You can go anywhere,” she said. “You’ll have more opportunities. I want them to have an open mind and understand other cultures and traditions.”

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