The Edina School Board recently approved two new academic programs, one that will incorporate a Spanish immersion model and another that will further STEAM education across the district.

The programs gained support from the School Board in a 5-2 vote Dec. 13. The new programming is intended to update the district’s offerings and improve Edina Public Schools’ competitive positioning in the community.

The offerings were presented to the board as “magnet programming,” which is used as a “generic term to reflect programming that is attractive to residents and is a competitive option for open enrolled families,” board documents said.

Why magnet?

In 2015, the district conducted the Birth to Grade 5 Study, which recommended the district implement language and STEM/STEAM programming to the elementary level. A subsequent survey by the Morris Leatherman Company in 2018 revealed families’ desire to see these same types of programs established, along with other talent opportunities, board documents said.

Then, in February, administration recommended that the district move forward with language programming.

A ThoughtExchange conducted in October saw responses from more than 100 students, 100 parents and 200 staff members. Additional stakeholder input was collected through student focus groups, staff and parent meetings and meetings with Spanish-speaking families, administrators have noted.

Magnet programming, in addition to being one of Superintendent Stacie Stanley’s goals, is also outlined in the 2020-25 Strategic Plan, which was approved mid-2020.

Under Strategy A of the Strategic Plan, one of the action items states the district should create new programming, like STEAM and immersion initiatives that promote “authentic and engaging learning experiences to meet the needs of future ready learners and provide attractive educational options for families.”

The new programming is also intended to change the trajectory of a predicted gradual decline in the kindergarten enrollment in the district over the next five to 10 years, Assistant Superintendent Randy Smasal noted at a Nov. 17 parent meeting.

Lower fertility rates and the presence of competitive programs in Edina, like the new Spanish immersion school, ISLA, were factors noted in a demography study conducted by Hazel Reinhardt, Smasal noted.

Spanish immersion programming

Demand for language immersion is high, Smasal said. In addition to surveys demonstrating this, he also pointed to the current waitlist for the district’s French immersion program at Normandale Elementary, which has over 50 families on it.

And Spanish, which has many already-licensed staff members in general and is the third most-spoken language among Edina students, was chosen for the program. The language also received the highest level of interest on ThoughtExchange, board documents said.

For the first year, beginning in the fall of 2022, two sections of kindergarten will be offered, for a total of up to 48 students. The two sections will be located at Edina Community Center, which is acting as an incubator site for the program until additional classrooms at Countryside Elementary can be built.

The next year and on, the program will be located at the elementary school in six newly constructed classrooms. Two sections of immersion programming for the next grade level will be added each year as students continue in the program.

Learning for existing students at Countryside, including those in Continuous Progress, will be uninterrupted, a district news release noted.

Several considerations went into deciding which elementary location would be chosen as the Spanish immersion school’s site, including enrollment numbers, amount of space available for construction, physical layout of the site and the demographics of families who attend the school.

Countryside is expandable and it has a large open enrollment, Smasal said.

Construction would be funded through a lease levy, board documents noted.

The dual, or two-way, model for Spanish immersion typically mixes native English speakers with native Spanish speakers. Theoretically, a dual immersion model would allow each of the students to achieve a deeper understanding of learning concepts and benefit from collaboration among peers with different backgrounds, Smasal said.

“Dual language immersion is mutually beneficial … because of the acceleration of either acquisition of, in this particular case, Spanish language for English-speaking children, and likewise English for Spanish-speaking children,” Stanley said at the parent meeting.

For English-language learners, a two-way model significantly improves their English-reading academic performance on standardized tests, a graph by researchers Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas show.

Amy Young, an English-language specialist for school support at the Minnesota Department of Education, presented this research to parents at the Nov. 17 meeting, noting that it consistently eliminates achievement gaps.

Core subjects would be taught in Spanish with other subjects being delivered in either English or Spanish, depending on staffing, Smasal said.

Incoming families that fill out a preference form will be chosen by a lottery system.

The goal is to have 50% of students entering the program be Spanish speakers, Smasal said in a statement through the district to the Sun Current. The lottery would be split into two parts – one for students from Spanish-speaking households and one for others. If one of those lotteries is short on families, the district will use the list from the other lottery to fill it, Smasal noted.

Students who are neither native Spanish speakers or native English speakers are also able to join the program, the district noted.

STEAM programming

STEAM is the acronym referring to the blending of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. This is an expansion to what is often called STEM. The arts addition taps into the “creativity element,” Smasal said at the parent meeting.

The designing phase for the STEAM programming will begin in the 2022-23 school year, with a team that will look to create curriculum, courses and learning themes. The team will also examine STEAM-related clubs and opportunities at the secondary level for certifications, internships and microcredentials. Implementation of the embedded STEAM programming is expected to occur in the 2023-24 school year, a district news release said.

“This approach provides students an opportunity to make connections across disciplines, encourages creativity and critical thinking, and allows for collaboration and real-world challenges,” the news release said.

School Board largely shows excitement about programming

While members of the Edina School Board expressed excitement over new program opportunities in the district at their meeting Dec. 13, not all of them voted to approve.

Boardmembers Ellen Jones and Owen Michaelson voted against the move, questioning additional construction and the allocation of staffing resources needed to carry out the Spanish immersion program following years of the pandemic.

Michaelson said he would want to wait a year or two for this program to start, stating that the district should focus on catching up from the pandemic and that families were caught off-guard by the proposal.

“The district has landed on a great idea. I think that people will be wild about it,” Jones said. “I don’t think that’s what’s going to be our issue.”

Jones put forward an amendment to advance the dual-language program without new construction at Countryside, citing the site’s already-sufficient capacity for resident students, the use of a lease levy, and deviation from the board’s guiding change document. The motion did not pass.

Boardmember Julie Greene said it will be important to create a cohesive and inclusive community at Countryside, given its different programs. While supporting the program, she still expressed concern about the extent to which resources, like the administrative staff, from the Early Learning Center would instead be allocated to the immersion program at the Edina Community Center for a year.

Smasal said an administrator from the Early Learning Center, like Leah Byrd, would help oversee the program, while duties that she would otherwise be responsible for would be backfilled.

Without this program, the district is likely to see a decline in enrollment, and with it, the district would see an increase, Boardmember Leny Wallen-Friedman noted. He said the board can revisit staffing needs at a future date, with its expected increase in fiscal opportunity.

Smasal said the district has the capacity to offer the new language opportunity to families now, especially given the high demand for the programming. He also said it would provide the district with enrollment and budget stability. Additional staff and materials for the program would be funded by additional student enrollment.

Some boardmembers, including Erica Allenburg, Janie Shaw and Matt Fox, acknowledged that change is hard, but said they supported the plan.

“Anytime you can find a program that can deliver on academic success and academic excellence and also, equity, I think it’s a win-win,” Allenburg said.

Allenburg acknowledged that the Countryside community may feel the decision to host the program there was made early, and that the district could have done a better job at choosing a site earlier. But she added that waiting a year would likely not change the outcome.

“Change can be scary,” said Shaw, who is the board liason for Countryside. In her comments, Shaw also praised Countryside Principal Karen Bergman for her communication with staff.

“This is a great way to expand what we offer,” Wallen-Friedman said.

– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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