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Ten Things I Learned From Starting an Immersion School

Editor's Note: Immersion schools around the country are invariably oversubscribed, with long waiting lists. There is a need for courageous people like Camilla Modesitt, co-founder and development director of Denver Language School, to open more of them. She shares lessons she has learned in the hopes they will inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

By guest blogger Camilla Modesitt

2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the founding of the Denver Language School, the only full-language immersion K-8 charter school offering Mandarin Chinese or Spanish in Colorado. As an original founder and current development director of the school, I have amassed some knowledge in what to do—and not do—when starting a school from the ground up. Through the years, I have had the opportunity to speak with numerous people who are interested in starting a language immersion school in their community. Following are some of my thoughts on the matter.

 1.     Be patient.

Like a fine wine, or writing a good book, anything worthwhile takes time. There are no overnight success stories. People will tell you "no;" people will be uninterested; people will send you on wild goose chases. If you believe in the school and what you are doing (as you should), don't be deterred. Every person who has ever achieved anything of value has been told "no" and nevertheless, they persisted. Keep at it, even when it seems impossible!

 2.     Define your mission and vision—and stick to it.

Denver-Language-School-2017-jmk-3421.jpgDefine a mission that you believe in strongly, that is backed by research, and that will serve your population. And then stick with it. Know that the fact that people will disagree with you does not mean you are wrong. Be willing to adapt, but don't change your mission with every challenge you face. As the only full-language immersion K-8 public charter school in Colorado, we endured significant pushback from people who wanted us to be a 50/50 model or who wanted us only to be K-5. But, based on the research, we knew that full immersion K-8 would yield greater academic and intercultural benefits, so we stuck with it. Put together a great proposal and know it inside and out.

 3.     Believe, believe, believe.

There will be days that you are so discouraged, you will want to throw in the towel and walk away. When we were starting the school, we had people say things to us like, "I have my degree in second-language acquisition, and I am telling you, this school will never work," and "This sounds great, but no one is going to support this." Persistence will pay off. More importantly, because of the research, we knew that language immersion was an incredible model that gave students incomparable opportunity. This knowledge alone was enough to keep us going.

 4.     Surround yourself with people smarter than you.

Don't try to have all the answers. In fact, it's better when you don't. Consult people, work with experts, reach out to those who have gone before you. Don't reinvent the wheel. There is a ton of research available on immersion schools and best practices through the Center for Applied Research in Language Acquisition (CARLA), Asia Society, and Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). Go to conferences and recruit those in the know. Put people on your team who round out the picture.

 5.     Do the next best thing.

When faced with difficult decisions, our one guiding principal was "do the next best thing." This way we could stay focused on the immediate tasks at hand and not become panicked or overwhelmed.

 6.     Speed kills.

Give yourself time to prove your educational model. It will work. The resources and expertise you commit to curriculum, teacher hiring and professional development, and assessment tools will yield desirable results, but you have to go slow in order to go fast. If you start pushing replication before you have a decent pool of data, you're building a house of cards without a solid foundation. Results take time. Look back at #1—Be Patient.

 7.     Fight the good fight.

Language immersion is not considered a priority by most lawmakers—at the local, state, or national level. It's okay, we'll get there. And you can help! Find local education advocacy organizations who fight for funding—or better yet, write or visit your lawmakers to ask them to prioritize language education. Go to your state capitol and testify (or have students testify) on behalf of language funding.

 8.     Education is a science.

Like all other sciences, best practices in education are constantly changing. One hundred years ago, doctors didn't believe they could operate on a baby in utero. Seventy years ago, the idea of putting a man on the moon was inconceivable. Now we have done both. Change is good. The way this generation is educated will—and should—look very different from the way we were educated.

 9.     The hidden shoals.

When you are starting a language immersion school, it's easy to overlook many of the non-language related, but just as important, issues. How will you provide support to students in language immersion programs? Will you offer gifted and talented services? What about your facility? Is it practical? Will you have to provide transportation to students and, if yes, how? The list of questions for non-related language concerns are long, exhausting, and critical. The more you can vet those questions ahead of time, the better off you will be.

 10.  The benefits of language immersion are real and tangible.

Denver-Language-School-2017-jmk-2455.jpgThe benefits of language immersion are vast. Research shows that students who learn a second language from a young age perform better academically than their non-language-learning peers. In addition, they have higher executive functioning skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, listening), and have greater compassion and empathy. And, as I like to point out, they are comfortable being uncomfortable. This past June, Denver Language School graduated its first class of 8th graders. A number of them sat for the AP Chinese or AP Spanish exam in May, and across the board we have high test scores. Moreover, these 8th grade graduates are compassionate students who really understand, as part of the fabric of who they are, what it means to be a global citizen.

The country needs more language immersion programs. With blurred geographic boundaries and advancements of technology, our children aren't just US citizens, they are citizens of the world as well. Language immersion prepares them for future in a meaningful way, giving them practical and applicable skills. If you are thinking about starting a school in your area, I hope this list helps as you begin this arduous, but oh-so-rewarding, journey. 

Connect with Camilla and Heather on Twitter.

Photo credits: Merritt Design Photo

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