Language-immersion programs expand in California’s schools

At the Thomas Edison Language Institute in Sacramento, kindergarteners and pre-kindergartners sang a lighthearted song in Spanish last week featuring words that begin with the letter “n.”

At Susan B. Anthony Elementary, 20 miles to the south, first-grade children sat on a carpet of rainbow-colored squares and watched teacher Makaelie Her explain in Hmong how to solve 3 + 9 + 7.

It has been 16 years since California voters approved Proposition 227, the English-focused education initiative that dismantled most bilingual education in California public schools. As ethnic populations have since increased in California, however, school districts, parents and community groups have launched dual-immersion programs that have gained popularity among both English learners and native English speakers.

In dual immersion, English and one other language are used each day in every facet of instruction. Classes typically have a mix of native English speakers and non-English speakers, and they are expected to benefit from one another.

Schools have launched new programs in recent years in Sacramento City and San Juan Unified school districts, offering immersion in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese or Hmong. Elder Creek Elementary in Sacramento teaches students Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English.

The programs attract parents of native English speakers who want their children to build second-language skills. They also appeal to parents of non-English speakers who believe the approach gives students a better grasp of academic concepts than English-only instruction.

The emphasis is on the youngest students because of the ease with which those children can grasp new languages. Educators point to studies published over the years by George Mason University researchers Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas that found that English-language learners in dual immersion progressed more quickly than in other forms of instruction.

At the Edison campus in the San Juan Unified School District, third-grader Macaela Koenig is a native English speaker who said she has learned Spanish so well since kindergarten that she translated for her parents last year when the family visited Mexico on vacation.

“I think it helped a lot,” said Macaela, now 8. “My parents don’t speak Spanish, and I had to translate the whole time.”

Her mother, Karen Koenig, said she believes learning a second language will sharpen her daughter’s listening skills and her ability to compete in the job market.

“I was blown away that this is a public program that she could be in and come out of it with Spanish and English,” Koenig said. After seeing Macaela’s results, she said, she enrolled younger brother Jonathan last year in the kindergarten class.

“It was pretty hard in the beginning,” she said. “They come home exhausted. But there was a point you could see that it (the learning) clicked.”

The Edison dual-immersion program starts students at 90 percent Spanish instruction in kindergarten and 10 percent English. Each year, instruction of school subjects shifts in increments toward more English. By the fourth grade, instruction is 50 percent English and 50 percent Spanish.

Other dual-immersion programs use variations of that formula – with some starting in kindergarten with a 50-50 split of English and a second language. Still other campuses in the region offer regular doses of foreign languages and culture, but without immersion. The Folsom Cordova Unified School District has two magnet schools that emphasize Spanish culture and language.

Edison Principal Todd Lindeman said it’s relatively easy for English-speaking parents to recognize the value of their children becoming bilingual. But the benefits of instruction in two languages are not always obvious to Spanish-speaking families eager to see their children progress in English, he said.

“They say they can teach it at home,” Lindeman said. “They might have conversational Spanish, but not the academic piece.”

The programs are popular. The school often turns disappointed parents away if they try to start their child in the program after kindergarten. By the first or second grade, he said, Edison students already are too advanced for most newcomers.

“If you hear about the program in first grade, you have really missed it,” Lindeman said, adding that latecomers can be tested but “very few children qualify.”

At William Land Elementary in Sacramento, the English-Mandarin program started three years ago. Openings – typically available only to incoming kindergartners – fill up quickly, said Principal Ellen Lee Carlson.

“Students come literally from all over Sacramento County,” Lee Carlson said. “Some enroll for cultural and linguistic reasons and some because they want their child to be globally competitive. Parents are very, very proud – not just the Chinese families but families of other ethnicities.”

“The conversations have already started” about how Mandarin education can continue after the sixth grade, Lee Carlson said, “because there is definitely an interest.”

In the region that includes Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yolo counties, the number of English-language learners in public school rose 22 percent between 1998 and 2013, going from 43,567 to 53,268, state figures show. Statewide, the number of such learners fell over the same period by 4 percent.

Most of California’s 1.35 million English-language learners receive English-only instruction.

Within a few years of Proposition 227’s passage in 1998, the number of California elementary-school-age students in multilingual programs fell by two-thirds, according to a 2003 article in Education Next, a Harvard University-based journal on K-12 instruction. Many programs that remained were dedicated to bringing English-language learners into the English mainstream as quickly as possible.

“Proposition 227 came in and it was like a sledgehammer,” said Vanessa Girard, director of multilingual literacy for the Sacramento City Unified School District.

“Proposition 227 made it more difficult to implement any kind of bilingual instruction, even dual immersion, which we know works,” she added. “As a culture, I don’t think we particularly value bilingualism. So we’re working to change that.”

Parents who want their children to learn a language other than English can help start a program if enough of them sign a Proposition 227 waiver. Last month, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced a bill aimed at placing an initiative on the 2016 statewide ballot to repeal multilingual instruction prohibitions.

At Susan B. Anthony Elementary in the Sacramento City Unified School District, the Hmong immersion program is in the third year.

Principal Lee Yang (pronounced Ya), who was instrumental in getting the program started, said students come from throughout the region. Most are from Hmong families, he said, since Hmong is not widely used in the global market like Mandarin. But the school also includes third-generation Hmong who spoke only English when they began.

The program’s intent is to help “speed up the process for the students to become proficient in English and to have a literacy competency in both English and Hmong,” Yang said. Kindergarten students start with 90 percent of instruction in Hmong.

On a recent school day, Her taught simple math in Hmong: “What would be the first thing I would do” in adding three numbers?

Xub Laim Thoj, 6, demonstrated for the class, verbally adding the sum of 3 and 7 to 9. “Put the two together,” he said in Hmong. “And that gives me 19.”

At Beamer Park Elementary in the Woodland Joint Unified School District, the dual Spanish-English immersion program is at capacity. Administrators plan to add portable classrooms this summer and are talking about expansion. Enrollment this year is 530, with another 60 people on a waiting list. Next year, the number of students enrolled is expected to rise to 590, district officials said.

“We’re seeing that parents who are interested are the parents who recognize that being bilingual is an asset for being competitive in the workforce,” said Elodia Lampkin, director of elementary schools and English learners for the district. “As demographics change, we’re seeing more and more interest.”