From time to time, I feature an individual who has made a remarkable difference in the lives of our children. These education change agents care about one thing above everything else: the education of our children.
"When I had my vision for a school, I realized that as a parent, I am powerful. As a teacher, I am an expert. Armed with that realization, I knew I could start my own school." So says Rhonda Broussard, founder and president of the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools in St. Louis. Founded in 2009, Rhonda's unique school offers elementary school students a total language immersion experience starting in kindergarten. When her students enter their classroom, they are greeted by a teacher and classroom assistant, both fluent in the language for that school. From day one, these kids become engulfed on not just the spoken language, but the culture of the language -- which is exactly the experience Rhonda was hoping to provide.
The seeds for Rhonda's school were sown from her own Louisiana creole roots. Rhonda's grandmother spoke French and always talked to Rhonda about the need to understand the culture of the French language. As a young girl, Rhonda resisted her grandmother's urgings and at 14, just as Rhonda was beginning to embrace them, her grandmother suddenly died. Rhonda still longingly speaks about how she always wanted the experience of the living community with her mother in the French world.
Always drawn to education, Rhonda studied at the Washington University at St. Louis and earned a graduate degree in French Studies at New York University. Thereafter she reached her goal of becoming a teacher specializing in language immersion. She taught in New York, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Louisiana and Missouri. It was in New York where she became more and more connected with the idea of language immersion for her students. By then, Rhonda had a child of her own and longed to give her the cultural language learning experience that she never had with her own grandmother. When a friend from graduate school exposed Rhonda to a language immersion program in New York, Rhonda began to research those schools. Soon, Rhonda relocated to St. Louis and after many inquiries, was surprised to learn that there were no language immersion programs in St. Louis. When it became clear that she could not follow her passion inside the traditional school system, Rhonda explored using the state's charter school law to create her innovative school.
At present, Rhonda offers Spanish, French and Chinese to her young students. She expects to grow those language offerings to include Japanese, German, Russian, Arabic and Farsi. While her school currently is K-4, she will add a new grade each year until she reaches her goal of K-12. Rhonda's school is incredibly diverse, in every sense of the word. Fifty-six percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch and the racial demographic is 54 percent African American, 29 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic. Walking through the halls of Rhonda's school is an amazing experience. In one classroom, I was greeted by a blonde-haired 5 year-old kindergarten student who described for me in French what the class was doing for the day. Since I had no idea what she was saying, she repeated her words in English. Thereafter, a young African American girl spoke to me in Spanish about an experiment her class was working on as I walked into the classroom. When she finished, she noticed the dumbfounded look on my face. Whereupon, her teacher gently reminded the girl, "Now, please say it again in English for our guest." We then walked into the Chinese language classroom. Well, you get the idea.
Throughout the tour, the love between students and teachers was palpable. When I mentioned this to Rhonda after I noticed the way she calmly made a couple of rambunctious boys walk quietly to their class, she said:
We shower our children with care and love. Unfortunately, too many children come from homes filled with tension. Even some well-intentioned parents discipline their children by using threats. We don't threaten our students. We use love as the lever for teaching, learning, discipline, for everything.
Well said, Rhonda. And thanks for running a great school for kids.