North Mpls gains teacher-run French immersion school

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Joellyn Jolsted, right, talks with parents about Pierre Bottineau French Immersion school.

A new K-2 elementary school will open this fall on Minneapolis’ North Side. It’s a unique reversal in the recent trend of closing elementary and middle schools in the area.

Pierre Bottineau French Immersion is the first school to open in Minnesota under a new state site-governed school law passed in 2009. It will be located at the Jordan Park building in North Minneapolis and will be designed and operated by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) teachers and other staff.

Research shows that language immersion teaches students a foreign language while also strengthening the students’ understanding of their native language. Students in immersion programs beginning in kindergarten to fifth grade achieve the same proficiency in English and other academic subjects such as math and science as do comparable English-speaking students who attend regular all-English programs.

MPS officials also point out that immersion programs are one of the fastest growing and most effective types of foreign language programs currently in the United States. Learning a second language will help students later when they reach middle school and high school “where we want them to take a world language,” says MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

“You can’t get into college without speaking another language,” Johnson continues. “I think if we are preparing students to be able to be global citizens, and to be able to have greater opportunities, then having a second language is important. And to start early, that is a good thing.”

Asked why a French immersion school on the North Side, Pierre Bottineau board member Cindy Moeller responds, “French is a particularly interesting language for the North Side. So many English words came from French, [and] it really helps kids to learn English.”
“I think that there is a stereotypical dismissal [of French] for people who don’t speak French or don’t realize the global nature of French,” adds Joellyn Jolsted, a Pierre Bottineau board member and outreach coordinator.

Perisida Louison, an MPS teacher and Haitian native, says,” I think it would be wonderful to have an immersion school on the North Side. There is a wide population of Africans that speak French that is not talked about.”

“I think this [school] may be attractive to some families where French already may be part of the parents’ language and they want the kids to learn it,” continues Johnson. “There are a lot of cultures and students of African descent from African countries that speak French. There are some Hmong cultures that [also] speak French.”

Jolsted says she visited a French immersion school currently operating in Milwaukee that mostly serves high-risk students. “We saw that their students are achieving at equally high levels… That school is one of the highest performers in that district.”

Johnson believes that a Northside French immersion public school could help close the present achievement gap between Black and White students. “As soon as students learn a dual language, they actually start to think more critically and diversely than students who are not,” notes the superintendent, who says that the new school is not replacing any Northside schools the MPS has previously closed.

Four information open houses were held at the new school over the past four weeks. Included in the 90-minute sessions was a sample lesson for children taught entirely in French. “The [entire] school day will be done in French — the kids will be doing all their learning in French” in kindergarten and first grade, notes Moeller, adding that English instruction for one hour per day will begin in second grade.

The school plans to add one grade per year and expects to be a full K-5 school in 2014. Students who live in the MPS attendance areas on the west side of North Minneapolis will receive priority placement and transportation to Pierre Bottineau.

The school will provide free transportation to students in the attendance area. If space is available, the school also will accept students who live outside the transportation area whose parents are willing to arrange transportation each day.

Pierre Bottineau is a tuition-free MPS school. “We are not a charter school,” says Jolsted.
“So far I like what I’m seeing and what I’ve been told,” says Paul Adelaide, a parent, who says he and his wife still are considering whether to send their son, who starts school this fall, to Pierre Bottineau.

Jess Peters is also looking at the school as a possibility for her son, who will start in kindergarten this fall as well. “I always wanted my child to be bilingual,” admits the parent, adding that she likes the idea of a French immersion school on the North Side.

“You look at the French immersion school in Edina, and there’s no way that we could ever get in there,” says Peters. “You either have to live in Edina or be on a wait list for years.”

Both Jolsted and Moeller say the search for a school leader is now underway. After that, then hiring staff will take place. Not surprisingly, being literate in French is among the qualifications they are looking for in teachers.

Asked if that includes Black teachers, Jolsted responds, “The most important thing for us in staffing is that they are excellent educators.”

“I would definitely hope that it would be a mixed staffing of teachers of color,” suggests Louison, who has been with MPS for six years.

For more information, call 612-668-225, email French.immersion@mpls.k12.mn.us, or go to the school’s website at http://frenchimmersion.mpls.k1.mn.us.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.