Being bilingual is especially useful in today’s global economy. The process of learning a second language also provides students with neurological and cultural enrichment. Studies have shown that children in foreign language programs demonstrate greater cognitive development and creativity. But this is not news to Edina educators, who recognized the benefits of language immersion education more than 20 years ago.
Planning for a French immersion elementary school in Edina began in 1991 before approximately 100 students entered the first kindergarten classes at Normandale Elementary French Immersion School. Today, Normandale Elementary educates more than 650 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. For the last 15 years, the program has been so popular that a lottery is necessary to determine enrollment for school district residents.
The core curriculum at Normandale is the same as in all other Edina elementary schools except that students are delivered content instruction in French until fifth grade; English language arts instruction is introduced in third grade. Students in grades 3–5 have an A and B day: the A day is taught entirely in French, while the B day is taught in half French, half English, depending on the subject being taught.
An internship program sponsored by parents brings in university students from Francophone countries (any country with French as their native language) to assist in Normandale classrooms. As many as 19 interns focused on a career in education are recruited and housed with host families each year. Their language skills provide a good model for students and are a tremendous help to teachers. The Wetmore family of Edina has two children enrolled at Normandale and has hosted five international interns.
“Interns are helpful in helping students perfect their accents,” Kris Wetmore says. “So much so, when our family travels abroad, native French speakers are amazed how well our children speak French.”
Karen Roach is the secretary for Normandale principal Gerry Lukaska. She is also an immersion parent whose daughter was a student in the school’s second kindergarten class. “Sending my children to Normandale was a leap of faith in the beginning,” Roach says. “But now they’re grown and have kept up with their French all through college.”
Roach’s daughter still uses her French language skills in her job at Cargill. Her son has traveled to Paris to translate for a group of engineering college students and is currently enrolled in a master’s program there. “Learning a second language has made my children global, helped them get ahead and given them lifelong experiences,” Roach says.
In the past, such international experience started in the fifth grade at Normandale, when 15 to 40 students traveled to France each summer on a two–week cultural exchange trip organized by participating parents.(There will not be an exchange program this year). Bianca Suglia, a social studies teacher at Normandale, has traveled on three student trips as a chaperone. “Trip leaders begin preparing students for their journey well in advance,” says Suglia. “We discuss things like how to handle culture shock, homesickness, ordering food in a restaurant and being polite. The trip is an all-encompassing experience that provides authentic opportunities for students to interact in French, use the language in a real context and experience French culture.”
Suglia notes that electronics are discouraged during the trip so students can be fully immersed in the experience. Their overseas activities include attending classes at a French school, visiting historic French villages, guided tours and museum visits.
But some of the most meaningful moments can occur by accident. Suglia tells of a flight cancellation in Paris during a trip last summer that required long hours at the airport and an unexpected hotel stay while awaiting a rescheduled flight. “The experience sent an empowering message to the students. It was a wonderful opportunity to unite as a group, practice staying calm, persevere and remain positive during unexpected circumstances,” she says. “It was a true adventure and important life lesson for kids about to enter middle school.”
Other Global Language Opportunities
Edina community education offers excellent global language opportunities for youth and adults. Spanish and Chinese language lessons are offered before and after school in many of the district’s elementary schools. Adult language lessons in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Chinese and French are available at various times throughout the year.
A new Passport to Community Education program includes a collection of classes that explore different countries through language, culture, crafts, food and fitness. Most classes meet for a single session and are great for entire families to attend together. The best part is that everyone who attends can collect stamps in a community education passport. Families and individuals who complete their passports will be featured in upcoming Edina Community Education publications.
For more information, visit edinaschools.org and click on Community Education.