Milwaukee German Immersion School has a long and proud history of accomplishments. Aside from being one of the largest schools of its kind in the United States, it has been serving the greater Milwaukee community for more than 30 years.
The German Immersion Program began in Milwaukee in September 1977 with 99 students in K4-Grade 3 under the direction of Anthony Gradisnik, Foreign Language Curriculum Specialist of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
In 1976, MPS lost a federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP that stated that schools that served the black population were systematically inferior to those that served the white population, and so MPS was put under court-ordered integration plans by Judge Reynolds. MPS and the City of Milwaukee did not want to experience the riots and upheavals that followed forced busing plans in the previous year(s) in some other American public school districts, such as Boston, who were under similar court orders. Thus, MPS chose a model of setting up a group of city-wide magnet schools with innovative programs to lure parents of both black and white students to integrate peacefully. With the court order also came federal magnet monies to establish these schools.
The administrators in MPS were encouraged to develop innovative programs. Mr. Gradisnik had read about a French Immersion Program established in 1967 in St. Lambert, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, and he was excited about the possibilities of duplicating that program model in an urban setting. He suggested that MPS start a German Immersion Program since the Milwaukee Metro area has such a large German heritage population.
In 1976-77 Mr. Gradisnik began the planning to recruit teachers and students, and to find a school building and curricular materials. He headed a committee of distinguished community members, including Gerhard Rauscher, a professor of German, and Judge Kessler, to interview teacher and assistant candidates. They hired Helena Anderson to be the Program Implementor, who was in charge of “all things German.” Helena Anderson Curtain has since been recognized as a leader in immersion education and works as a consultant all over the world assisting other countries in establishing immersion programs. They also hired the following teachers: Marianne Bonelli (K4, K5), Paula Finucane (Grade 1), Theresia Tarjan (Grade 2), and Barbara Camp-Griesser (Grade 3). Rosemarie Wolf was hired as the library assistant, and Gisela Drewitz and Barbara Zippel were hired as assistants. A summer workshop helped them to gel as a staff and develop the ideas and materials to begin the first day.
The district identified a very small school, 68th Street School, on the northwest side of Milwaukee to be the site of the German Immersion Program. The official name was “68th Street Second Language Proficiency School.” Frank Henke was assigned as the part-time principal. Federal magnet money was used to renovate the school to include some German décor including window boxes with geraniums and a sign on the front lawn that read “Deutsche Volksschule.”
Locating German teaching materials to implement an American curriculum to non-German speakers was the biggest challenge. Ordering from overseas was a minimum 6-month process involving requesting catalogs from publishers in Germany, sending orders overseas, waiting for bills to be mailed from the publishers, getting a foreign draft from the bank and mailing the foreign draft.