Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Superintendent Scott Hannon announced last week that Madison Elementary will be the site of a new Spanish language immersion school beginning in the fall of 2014. At the two-section school, one full section each of kindergarten and first grade will be enrolled in the Spanish language learning program. At least 50 percent of the children's school lessons will be taught in Spanish, and the program will expand to other grades as the initial classes move to higher grades in the school.
The immersion program will be open to students across the district, using a lottery system similar to the one employed for the selection of students at the Jefferson Elementary STEM program. Both lottery selection processes are expected to begin soon and close at the end of January, and Hannon said until the district has a better handle on where students chosen for the magnet schools will come from, principals at all WAPS locations have been instructed not to approve any open enrollment requests for the coming school year.
Foreign language instruction will also be expanded at the Winona Middle School, with Spanish 1 offered as an elective for all seventh- and eighth-grade students.
"As [the foreign language expansion committee] started putting more [courses] in the middle school, that's what sold it for me," said board member Ben Baratto, a retired Spanish language teacher. "I think if we start at both ends, work this down and this up, I'm satisfied."
Hannon told the board that he didn't anticipate the program to add expense to the district's budget. The initial two sections of Spanish language immersion will be taught by regular classroom teachers. Hannon said the district has one bilingual teacher on staff now, and plans to replace a teacher retiring next month with a teacher who is fluent in Spanish.
"It's not for everybody," explained Hannon. "It's a language; it's different. [Parents need to know] it's a commitment." When asked why the committee chose Madison Elementary as the site of the new program, Hannon said a survey of parents of four- and five-year-old children showed more interest in that part of the district.
Eighty-four parents of kindergarten-aged students responded to the survey, with 36 indicating support for the program, 30 writing that they were not interested, and 18 indicating they needed more information about the program to form an opinion. Eighty-one parents of first graders responded to the survey, with 36 indicating interest, 37 stating no interest, and nine who asked for more information.
Board member Steve Schild, who has said in the past he supports expanded foreign language but has criticized the plan as not including enough students, expressed continued reservation about the recommended immersion plans. "[I'm] not clear on why the school identified is viewed as the ideal location," he said. "As I look at [the survey], we're very close to 50-50."
"Choice in public education means a voice for parents," said board member Jeanne Nelson. Such a choice might not be for everyone, she said, but "I want to know that there are possibilities out there, and that's what this represents: a choice."
Board chair Mohamed Elhindi said that the program may begin with a small section of students, but that will give the district the chance to perfect the program before potentially increasing the number of children it serves. "At least we can control the quality, make sure we built a good program and make it a successful program, and grow it," he said.