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Bienvenue (or bienvenido) to St. Louis' newest charter schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 8, 2009 - The little kindergartener struggled a bit with her welcome address, but hey, she was speaking in Spanish, and that explains the warm applause for her efforts.

The girl's remarks and similar ones in French by a first grader marked the official introduction to two unusual public charter schools in St. Louis. One is a French school and the other a Spanish school; both are part of St. Louis Language Immersion Schools . Located at 4011 Papin St., the two schools open their doors Monday, Aug. 17, to 180 kindergartners and first graders.

The schools are one of two exciting developments this fall in public education in St. Louis. The other is KIPP Inspire Academy, a highly regarded charter school that also began classes this morning with a rigorous program that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and half-days on Saturdays.

The woman behind the language immersion schools is Rhonda Broussard, a graduate of Washington University and New York University, and a French teacher in public schools for eight years.

While new to St. Louis, language immersion schools already have proved their worth in many other cities, including Kansas City, says Broussard. Joining her at Friday's session were former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, the board chair of the Language Immersion Schools; and Alderman Joseph D. Roddy, D-17th Ward. The schools are in his ward.

All instruction at the schools will be in Spanish or French through the second grade. Then the children will be taught in English from third through fifth grades and will always communicate in English during before- and after-school programs.

By the time the students reach high school, Broussard expects them to be fluent in English as well as the language they studied. The language immersion approach will help students meet and exceed grade-level requirements for math, science and other subjects while developing skills to understand other cultures, Broussard says.

Schoemehl praised Broussard for "taking children in this community and repositioning them so that they have a competitive advantage in the 21st century."

The program, Schoemehl says, will "teach them to communicate in a way that will put St. Louis, hopefully in 25 or 30 years from now, in the delightful position of having well-educated, internationally focused and articulate young people in the midst of our community. I think that bodes well for our long-term economy and for the education of these kids."

The teaching staff includes Jennifer Giovannoni, a native St. Louisan who graduated from Truman State and the University of Illinois. A French major with a minor in art history, she spent three years teaching English in France after college and says she was impressed that France believed in educating children at a younger age.

"Free public education in France begins at age 3," Giovannoni said in an interview, "and French kids learn things a little bit more deeply, I think."

French schools, she said, are more child-focused, with all activities, even lunch and physical education, planned around children. That's also the goal at the two new charter schools, she said.

"We will eat lunch with our children, we are going to organize games during recess. Teachers (in regular schools) want that time to plan, but we prefer to spend it with our children to help them immerse in language even further. These are ways we're making (everyone) more of a family, making the experience more of a life change that's not just about school."

Parents who say they are excited about the school include Heather Lake, development director for Crossroads College Prep. She has enrolled her son, Isaac, who will be a kindergartner. Her two other children, second and fourth graders, go to Kennard Classical Junior Academy.

"It's great for St. Louis to have the language immersion schools," she says. "We're an international community, we have a lot of immigrants here, and this is an opportunity to bring everyone together even more.

"My hope is that this will clear the divide between different racial communities in St. Louis. The kids will struggle together, learn together and grow together."

Broussard says that 55 percent of the students are African-American, and 35 percent are white. The rest are Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and a few are biracial, she says. About 30 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunches. These low-income youngsters will receive money to buy school uniforms; others may receive $50 toward the purchase of their uniforms, she said.

The school has a 1-to-10 teacher student ratio in kindergarten, and each of these classes has one full-time teacher and one full-time teaching assistant. Broussard says the assistants qualify for the same bonuses and receive the same stipends and training for professional development classes as teachers.

Broussard says the idea for the school came during an important milestone in her own life.

"My daughter was born May 3, 2005," she says, "and that's when the seed (for a language immersion school) was planted. It has taken us a little over four years to get to this point. Most folks in St. Louis thought we were crazy. I'm very delighted to tell them that they were wrong."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.