High-demand Spanish immersion classes face cuts as Minneapolis Public Schools grapples with shortfall

people hold a sign that reads colectiva bilingue
A group of parents and students held up a sign supporting bilingual programs at the Minneapolis school board meeting on March 12.
Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Elizabeth Ledesma-Fernandez knew it might not be easy to enroll her 3-year-old son, Leo, in the school where she teaches. Emerson Dual Language School, which immerses elementary students in both Spanish and English, has more than 20 kids on its kindergarten waitlist.

But now, Emerson is poised to lose one of its four kindergarten classrooms. Ledesma-Fernandez worries that means Leo will have even less opportunity to enroll.

The kindergarten at Emerson is one of seven elementary classrooms that the Minneapolis Public Schools has proposed cutting to its Spanish dual-language program as it grapples with a $110 million shortfall.

The cuts come at a time when the district’s enrollment of Spanish-speaking students is growing. More than 2,500 new students whose home language is Spanish enrolled in the district between January 2023 and January 2024, according to district officials. Many of those are new immigrants from Ecuador, as well as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Colombia.

Ledesma-Fernandez says she understands the need for budget cuts. Her own position has been cut, though she expects to stay at Emerson in another role. But she doesn’t understand why such a program in such high demand should lose a kindergarten classroom.

“Why are we getting treated like there’s no customers?” she asked.

Much of the district’s shortfall is due to the end of federal COVID-19 aid. But district officials also say that after years of putting off painful choices, this budget represents a reality check. Though Minneapolis Public Schools has space to serve 40,000 students, it now serves just under 30,000. Yet the district has not shrunk the size of its operations. Officials have signaled that school closures and consolidations could be coming before the start of the 2025-2026 school year.

But teachers and parents at the popular Spanish dual-language immersion schools fear these cuts could undermine a program that attracts students to the district.

The district has pointed to declining enrollment as a reason for its financial crunch. Yet enrollment is not a problem at the dual-language schools. More than 250 students are waitlisted across Minneapolis’ three dual-language elementary schools because the programs are full, according to school district data obtained by Colectiva Bilingüe, a parent-teacher organization that advocates for the dual-language schools. The Star Tribune reported last year that Emerson is the only district school where the number of students exceeds the building capacity. Yet Emerson is facing cuts of $1.6 million — 23 percent of the school’s total budget.

“Our budget will continue to be processed and nothing is final until the school board votes in June,” Minneapolis Public Schools said in a statement to Sahan Journal. “We are proposing an increase in elementary class sizes. This means that fewer classrooms will provide space for the same overall number of students.” Those cuts include the elimination of eight kindergarten classrooms throughout the district, the statement said.

At Emerson, capacity issues played a role in the decision to cut a kindergarten class, the district said.

“Emerson has been reduced by one kindergarten classroom to further address both the overcrowding and the financial constraints,” the district said in a statement.

In addition to the cuts, the district said it had also proposed 24 new English language teachers “to support the influx of home language Spanish-speaking students.”

Yet teachers and parents say that when these newcomers can access the dual language schools— a rarity, due to high demand — they benefit from being able to communicate in Spanish while also learning English. At other schools they might have only one staff member who can understand them.

“To me that’s linguistic oppression,” said Molly Dengler, an Emerson parent who is co-president of Colectiva Bilingüe. “For all these families not to be able to grow in a culturally responsive setting, and not even know that it exists because our schools are full and nobody wants to promote it right now, is a huge loss.”

Given all these factors, Ledesma-Fernandez said, why treat the dual language schools like all the others?

“I don’t think we should be seen as a whole,” she said. “There’s something else here.”

‘An exodus of the Latino community’

Altogether, the district has proposed cutting seven elementary classrooms from its Spanish dual language immersion schools. Four classrooms will be cut from Emerson, while three will be cut from Green Central. Parents say these elementary classrooms, especially the Emerson kindergarten classroom, represent critical times when students can enter the dual-language pathway.

In a school board finance committee meeting Tuesday night, senior finance officer Ibrahima Diop explained that as part of the district’s strategy to make budget cuts equitable, class sizes will not increase at schools where more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. That means the number of classrooms will stay the same at Las Estrellas Dual Language School. But teachers and parents there worry about the impacts the cuts will have on staffing stability.

And Andersen United Middle School and Roosevelt High School, like the elementary schools, are slated to lose their dual-language coordinators. Instead, the district plans to have one central coordinator for the Spanish dual-language program.

José Agustin Mejía, an interventionist at Green Central Elementary School whose kids also attend the school, worries about the educational experience for students next year with so many staffing cuts. Green Central is facing cuts of $1.5 million, about 19 percent of the total budget. The school is poised to lose one classroom each in first, second, and third grade, as well as all the interventionists like Mejía.

Without interventionists, Mejía said, teachers will spend more time addressing specific students’ behavior. 

“As a father, I’m worried because the children are going to have less opportunity to learn,” he said in Spanish.

But he also worries about limiting opportunities for Spanish-speaking families and staff. He has many friends who don’t attend Minneapolis Public Schools because they could not secure a spot in the dual-language program, he said. And he also knows many staff who have left for other districts. It represents “an exodus of the Latino community,” he said.

Amy Gustafson, whose children attend the dual-language program at Andersen and Roosevelt, and who has worked as a substitute teacher in both schools, said that losing the language coordinators on the secondary level would make teachers’ jobs much harder. The coordinators help translate and create Spanish-language curriculum, acclimate teachers who are new to the country, and provide support to students.

“I think it’ll be bigger classes, it will be less support or even time for the teachers to do all that extra prep, it will be less consistency in what one teacher’s teaching versus another,” Gustafson said. “It just is more Wild Wild West.”

At Las Estrellas, the number of classrooms will remain the same, said Sara Van Hoy, who teaches fourth-grade English language learners there. 

But many teachers at Las Estrellas hold what the state considers to be temporary licenses. These teachers have been given notice that they will be “excessed,” meaning they will be let go. Their positions will be opened up to teachers who hold permanent licenses; then, if the district is unable to fill them, they may be reopened to the staff with temporary licenses.

Excessing teachers with temporary licenses would mean cutting more than 60 percent of all Las Estrellas teachers, according to a petition circulated by school staff. And though the budget won’t be final until the school board votes on it in June, those teachers may have to make decisions about their employment before then.

“What we’re looking for is consistency and stability for our kids,” Van Hoy said. State data show that three out of four kids at Las Estrellas are Hispanic or Latino. That number includes several dozen new-to-country students, she said.

Some teachers at the dual-language immersion schools have work visas, and are concerned about the instability of their positions, said Ambrose Diaz, a fifth-grade teacher at Las Estrellas.

“I don’t know why…this is happening,” Diaz said. “Why is the district doing that when there is a lack of teachers?”

Priscila Quinde, a parent at Las Estrellas who leads the school’s Ecuadorian affinity group, said proposed cuts at her school included a staff member who helps parents with digital platforms. Without these staff, more responsibility will fall on teachers and parents to support kids, she said.

Quinde’s fourth-grader previously attended school in Port Chester, New York. She recalled that in that school system, each classroom had four adults — two who spoke English and two who spoke Spanish. Removing the support staff would make it difficult for teachers to support students who learn at different paces and have different needs, she said.

“The impact, in the end, will be on the children,” she said in Spanish.

‘There was no decision that we took lightly’

Colectiva Bilingüe, which organizes parents and teachers across the five schools of the dual-language program, formed in wake of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ 2020 redistricting plan. At the time, one school’s dual-language program closed, and several Spanish-only classrooms were eliminated. 

When Minneapolis Public Schools announced budget cuts this month, it reminded some parents and teachers of their fight four years earlier.

At a bilingual meeting with parents and staff from the five schools on March 9, school board members Adriana Cerrillo and Kim Ellison expressed support for the programs and said the board had not made a final decision.

Associate Superintendent Yusuf Abdullah stressed how difficult the budget process had been.

“There was no decision that we took lightly,” he said. He explained that with cuts to the budget item that supplies dual-language coordinators, the district could not afford to provide one at each site.

“It is our hope to continue to have some level of support knowing that things are going to look a lot different,” he said.

He explained that allocations for classrooms at each grade level were determined by calculations for enrollment and attrition. Still, he said, he was talking to the placement office about restoring a fourth kindergarten to Emerson.

“I just can’t guarantee you that that’s going to happen,” he said. “But that’s going to be our efforts, knowing that we don’t want to deplete our DL [dual-language] program. We want it to be thriving.”

‘I cannot just defend one program or another’

Cerrillo has a long connection with Emerson, which her nephew attended. But in a phone interview Tuesday, she told Sahan Journal that the overall budget represented a state of emergency, and that she could not single out the dual-immersion program for help. She said the community needed to pressure Governor Tim Walz and the federal government to step in and help.

“I cannot just defend one program or another,” she said, pointing to extensive cuts at North Side schools. “Our community at Emerson, we are a pretty healthy community. Our community’s going to be okay. That’s not the case for other communities.”

There could be no solution without more funding from the state and federal government, she said — and without a solution, she worried about the wellbeing of Minneapolis children.

“It’s going to require community, it’s going to require sacrifices, it’s going to require also bravery,” Cerrillo said.

A closing window

Ledesma-Fernandez also has a middle-schooler and a high-schooler from a previous marriage. They attend South Washington County Schools, in the family’s home district. When they were younger, they attended a school where they had Spanish class once a week. But that wasn’t enough for them to learn the language — even though she spoke it to them at home, Ledesma-Fernandez said.

“My kids are nowhere close to being bilingual,” she said. “I don’t want to repeat the same story with Leo.”

Her seventh-grade daughter is proud of her Mexican heritage; she is “obsessed” with listening to Spanish music and trying to attend Mexican parties, Ledesma-Fernandez said. But she does not feel comfortable traveling to Mexico because she is not fluent in Spanish.

“She’s intimidated speaking to someone who speaks native Spanish because she thinks they’re going to make fun of her,” Ledesma-Fernandez said. In contrast, she said, young children feel more comfortable making mistakes while learning.

She sees a narrow window to help Leo develop a lifelong connection with his heritage, language, and culture. But she worries Minneapolis Public Schools will close that window of opportunity.

“That’s what’s scary,” she said. “When you get to choose who gets to be bilingual or not.”