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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane will get its first standalone public language immersion school as growing Spanish program moves and evolves

Mauricio Segovia is the principal of the Spokane Public Language Immersion Program, which will move this fall into the former Pratt Elementary School building.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County is getting its first standalone public language immersion school, as the ever-growing Spanish program through Spokane Public Schools housed in the Libby Center will move to its own facility next year and become its own school.

The popular program where instruction is 50-50 Spanish-English is outgrowing the space it shares with Odyssey and Tessera, programs for advanced students. Begun in 2017 with two classes of kindergartners, the program adds a grade each year until it serves kindergarten to eighth grade. Next year, the school’s original class of kindergartners will enter seventh grade.

But the Libby Center is out of space; two portables already sit on the campus for extra classrooms.

“We have 280 students enrolled,” Principal Mauricio Segovia said. “The need to continue supporting the expansion at this point requires the assessment of, ‘All right, if we continue supporting this, how can we possibly fit all the kids within this space?’ And it’s impossible.”

The soon-to-be standalone school will be in the vacant Pratt building, a long ranch-style facility built in 1958 in East Spokane that spills into Spokane Valley territory. The former elementary school, which closed in 2007, housed various alternative programs and was last renovated in 2013.

The building doesn’t need any major construction, said capital projects director Greg Forsyth. But it will get a fresh coat of paint and new electronics, along with play structures and furniture suitable for the young pupils.

“It has good bones, but it needs some love,” Segovia said.

The district has budgeted about $1.5 million to get the building ready. Most of that is to pay for transporting two portables at Libby to the new site, an extensive process that involves deconstructing the makeshift classrooms and hauling them 3 miles from Libby to Pratt.

Other costs include $600,000 for next school year for operations, like staffing and electricity, and anywhere from $180,000 to $685,000 in transportation costs.

The school board endorsed the move to Pratt on April 24, though it is not officially funded until they adopt the budget in August.

Staff and families already are dreaming of becoming their own school, rather than a school program, especially to build their identity and better execute their unique mission as an immersion school.

Surrounded by other English-speaking pupils in the Odyssey and Tessera programs at Libby, it’s difficult to fully immerse students in their target language. Instruction follows a 50-50 Spanish-English model, but kids mostly use English on the playground and in hallways. Segovia hopes to shift language use to 80-20 Spanish-English, which he believes will be much easier to accomplish if the program can exist in its own space, he said.

“We need the physical space where we’re going to identify with focus and in a more targeted way,” Segovia said. “The learning environment with the language that we’re targeting to develop, which is Spanish here, we cannot do because we’re sharing the space with another school that focuses on a different instructional model.”

Hired as principal this year, Segovia has ushered in changes to the program he’s eager to continue in a new building. Lured out of retirement from his past role overseeing a section of Chicago Public Schools and with teaching experience in his home country Chile, he rallied to collect around $15,000 in grant funding for the state to send his staff to conferences and other schools across the country. He’s also provided extensive training for his team, necessary because it’s easy for them to feel isolated as the only Spanish immersion teachers in the county, he said.

Other changes may be on the horizon for the school.

Segovia hopes to increase the number of classes of younger students to make up for attrition as students age.

Segovia also has made it his aim to include more Latinos and native Spanish speakers in his school; there’s still work to be done toward this goal, including reviewing outreach efforts and the enrollment process, he said.

“Just by continuing what we have done in terms of communication and strategy, we’re reaching the same people, and they are pretty much the 85% of Caucasian families we have currently in our program,” Segovia said.

Among the 44 pupils selected via a lottery to be in the school’s next class of kindergartners, none are Latino, he said. He hopes to initiate an alternative enrollment process for students who already speak some Spanish.

“It’s been mostly used by monolingual and white families,” Segovia said. “So now to increase that, to open up opportunities for increased diversity and welcome other minority students, I am creating access for students who are families who are Latino that speak Spanish.”

A blank canvas

Segovia said he’s only received positive feedback surrounding the prospective move to Pratt, which many families and staff have already toured. After the board voiced its support of the school’s move at the April 24 meeting, the chat on the meeting’s Zoom stream flooded with messages of gratitude and celebration. Around 70 tuned into the stream, more than is standard for the district.

“We’ll move into a space that maybe isn’t exactly how we wanted it, but we’ll make it that for ourselves,” said school parent Tania Johnson. “I think that will actually help our program build a lot of community and bring the students closer together.”

Johnson has a first- and sixth-grader at the program, her eldest one of the inaugural kindergartners at the school’s inception. Having been involved each year since 2017, Johnson is thrilled to watch the once 50-student program blossom into its own school.

“We wanted our children to be in a school that was based in the celebration of diversity and talking about social justice issues and really bringing inclusiveness and cultural awareness to the surface,” Johnson said.

Her sixth-grader is thriving while learning Spanish, on track to earn her seal of biliteracy by eighth or ninth grade, satisfying her world language requirement in high school and freeing up her schedule to take other electives, perhaps a third language. Johnson said she’s been learning French online in her spare time.

Along with a fresh building, the new school will get to decide its name, mascot and colors.

Segovia has begun surveying his staff and students in these areas – the favored mascot, earning half of the survey votes for students, is the axolotl, a critically endangered amphibian native to Mexico.