Monday through Friday, Maya Reinfeldt is an eighth-grader at Savanna Oaks Middle School in Fitchburg.
But on Saturdays, while her classmates are at soccer practice or gymnastics lessons, the 13-year-old is back at a desk studying literature in her mother’s native Russian.
Maya is one of more than 50 students enrolled at the Madison Russian School, a weekly immersion program where students can take classes in math, language, literature and drama, often using the same texts as their counterparts in Russian schools.
It’s not all academics. Students also do many performance events, sing together in a choir and participate in cultural gatherings with their families. And because they spend years together in the same classroom, they often develop deep friendships linked by a faraway culture.
“Sometimes I get more out of it than normal school,” said Maya, whose mother helped co-found the Russian School in 2003 so that her daughter, then 2, could master the language. “It’s a pretty good way to spend a Saturday morning. Otherwise I’d just be wasting my time.”
Many families may be familiar with dual-language immersion programs — such as Madison’s Nuestro Mundo charter school — that have a growing presence in area public school districts.
But programs that immerse students in language and culture outside the regular school day also have carved out a special niche — one that seems to be growing, as language schools are launching summer camps or expanding enrollment.
In rented classrooms in central Madison’s Neighborhood House, the German School of Madison holds weekly after-school language lessons for children of native German speakers, as well as those with no German language background.
Like the Russian school, the German school was formed by parents to give their children a linguistic link to their heritage.
It started as something else — an informal group where adults got together a couple times a week to chat in their native language.
“The adults would speak German with one another, and their kids would run around speaking English,” said Chris Tabisz, a teacher at the school. “The parents got to thinking they should have some sort of instructor or tutor to play games with the kids or do arts and crafts, and do it in German.”
In 2012, organizers began offering more formal German language classes for students from preschool through seventh grade who were growing up in German-speaking households. Last fall, the school added a class for children from non-German-speaking homes.
The class proved so popular that the school had to add another section this spring. It plans to add more in the fall.
For non-native speakers, “I’ve seen them really fall in love with the language,” Tabisz said. For the children of parents who grew up speaking German themselves, “it’s about keeping it alive.”
The children “all go to public school and speak English all day long,” he said. “Even at home sometimes, their parents will speak German to them and they will speak English back. So this is really an opportunity to pull out whatever remnants they have of German.”
Raising global citizens
The value of studying another language and culture goes beyond connecting with one’s heritage, said Amanda Zanchetti-Mayo, director of the Verona Area International School. Students at the public K-5 school spend half their day studying math, science and language arts in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program.
Early secondary language acquisition has been shown to enhance brain development. And when students are immersed at a young age, they’re more likely to master the proper pronunciations and tones of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, Zanchetti-Mayo said.
The Verona program — which includes many students with no Chinese ancestry — is offering a new summer camp in Chinese this year, funded in part by STARTALK, a U.S. Department of Defense and National Security Agency program that provides instruction to students and teachers in languages not normally taught in schools. Of the 88 student spots in the summer camp, all but a few have been filled, Zanchetti-Mayo said.
A 15-year-old immersion French Camp for Youth run by UW-Madison Continuing Studies is likewise “extremely popular,” said camp coordinator Sage Goellner. “We fill up and have waiting lists every year.”
The program is held each summer in the French House on the UW-Madison campus, with room for 40 students ages 4 to 12, many of whom return year after year, Goellner said. Only a few slots for ages 4 to 6 remain open for this year’s camp.
As in the Russian and German programs, a number of students come from “mixed marriages” — with one American-born, English-speaking parent, and one parent with a different first language. Others are simply “academically motivated” and attend a school that doesn’t offer foreign languages to younger students, Goellner said.
Students are taught by K-12 French teachers, and many have gone on to college programs in French themselves, she said. The day camp focuses on the entire French-speaking world, not just France, and native French speakers often drop by to volunteer.
“I think it’s important that we start raising our global citizens early,” she said.
Since 2008, Wisconsin Youth Company has sponsored a range of after-school lessons in Spanish, French and Chinese. More recently it established a series of summer World Language Camps in French, German, Spanish and Chinese for grade schoolers.
One of Madison’s longest-running language schools is Midrasha: Madison’s Hebrew High School, which has conducted classes in Hebrew since 1975. About three dozen students enroll each semester in the school, which offers classes in modern-day conversational Hebrew to any student in grades eight through 12 with an interest in Hebrew.
‘The kids just love it’
The Madison Russian School, which during the school year meets at the Lussier Community Education Center on Madison’s West Side, will hold its second annual day camp at a Verona church this summer.
Along with children of native Russian speakers, the school’s students include a number of children adopted from Russia. Many parents feel their children’s weekday academic performance gets a boost from the Saturday school’s curriculum and light-hearted fun, said principal Inna Reinfeldt, Maya’s mother.
Maria Sargent grew up in Latvia and today her daughter Haley, 13, and stepdaughter Makeda, 8, attend the Russian School.
“We were taken aback” by the quick language acquisition of Makeda, who was born in Ethiopia and has grown up speaking English, Sargent said. “She has amazing pronunciation, a great memory for the language — all things that were realized by her taking the Russian classes.”
What’s more, “the kids just love it,” Sargent said of the Russian School. “The teachers have rich backgrounds. It’s playful and nourishing. In public schools, classes change every year and your friends change every year. (In the Saturday school) it’s nice to have those close friends and their families that you’ve carried with you for years and years.”
Tabisz also knows firsthand what an impact language immersion can have on a young life.
Tabisz, who is pursuing funding from the German government to expand programs at the German School of Madison, first heard about Germany from his American father, who had lived abroad for a time.
“When I was in sixth grade, he asked me if I wanted to learn German,” recalled Tabisz, who took lessons at a Saturday German school in Washington, D.C. He spent his 11th grade year in Germany, and today is a Ph.D. student in German at UW-Madison.
“It’s really cool,” he said, “to be able to go back and teach these kids at the same level as where I started to learn German.”