Cuban-American Elisa Batista knew she wanted to send her children to a school in which classes were taught in a language besides English, but when she first explored what is known as 'immersion schools' five years ago, she was concerned. She toured campuses in Northern California where only a few classes were conducted in Spanish, by teachers speaking with poor grammar and heavy accents.
She found a private school that was different. At Escuela Bilingüe Internacional, half the student body is Latino, the teachers come from Spain and Latin America and the entire school speaks Spanish exclusively.
“Their [Spanish] vocabulary is better than mine and my husband’s” Batista said of her two children. “They know how to say mathematical terms and names of animals that we never learned. I’ll say things wrong and they correct me.”
Language immersion schools in the U.S. have come a long way since Batista first toured them. They have grown in numbers and scope in a relatively short period of time. In 2007, there were a little more than 250 schools in the country. By 2011, they more than doubled to about 530 in 22 different languages, according a survey conducted by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.
Many programs are taught in Spanish for 90 percent of the kindergarten day. In first grade, that decreases to 80 percent of the day, and 20 percent in English. The English component continues to increase so that by 5th grade, the students are learning 50-50 English and Spanish.
Researchers at the center said that the survey was voluntary and might therefore underestimate the true numbers. Spanish immersion schools made up 45 percent of those, followed by French (22 percent) and Mandarin (13 percent).
States such as Utah and Delaware have authorized spending to grow their programs and more states are also exploring the option. Some states are authorizing bilingual seals to be placed on diplomas recognizing mastery in two languages as a noteworthy accomplishment.
“The states are strategically choosing languages that they believe will advantage them,” explained Tara Fortune, Immersion Projects Coordinator at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. “It’s the old adage of you can buy in any language but if you want to sell you cannot sell in any language. If you want to sell, you need to be a little more savvy.”
In affluent neighborhoods, you can see the growth through the outcroppings of pre-schools, music classes and playgroups held in Spanish or Mandarin or any language.
You can’t expect children whose parents don’t speak those languages at home to maintain what they learned in a short period of exposure, bilingual advocates say, but it might provide enough of a positive experience that they may be receptive to learning the language in the future.
However, if long-term bilingualism is your family’s goal, you need more than a music class in which they sing La Bamba. Immersion schools are one way to achieve that and, as in the case of Baldwin Park’s schools, they can be the means to far more.
But not everyone thinks the programs are beneficial. Some organizations caution against the immersion model, citing concern that students who are learning English in a classroom where English is taught less than half of the school day might be detrimental.
"We think support (for English language learners) should be short term and transitional," said Karin Davenport, spokeswoman for U.S. English, an organization supporting legislation that would make English the official language of the U.S. She called for further testing to determine the long-term benefit of immersion programs. "We think they should acquire English proficiency as soon as possible."
And while the group supports learning other languages, Davenport said they have concern that shifting taxpayer resources into immersion programs could detract from resources for programs that help immigrants learn English.
"We think it’s important we allow enough resources so that people who want to learn English have the opportunity to do so," she said.
An L.A. School Finds Success
Baldwin Park is a city in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley whose overall population is 80 percent Latino, 4 percent white. The median household income is about $51,000. In the Baldwin Park Unified School District, more than 90 percent of their kids are eligible for free lunches. With high rates of poverty and high numbers of minorities whose primary language is not English, it is the kind of school district you shouldn’t be surprised to see on a list of underperforming schools.
But the schools are not underperforming. Some have been so successful — especially their schools that with a language immersion program— they have been the focal point of reports on the benefits of bilingual education.
Fueling interest in the district is a report in Education Trust West, a student advocacy group focused on the academic performance of low-income and minority students. Baldwin Park was ranked highest in the state with a letter grade of B because their low-income and students posted increases in their state exams, as measured by a point system called the Academic Performance Index. In addition, the difference between the API of Latino students (94 percent of the district’s population) and white students (2 percent) was less than 30 points, the only school listed in the report’s top 10 to have such a small gap.
Five of the district’s 13 elementary schools, along with two of the middle- and junior high schools (of four) and one high school (of two) in the district offer language immersion programs. In California, the goal is that each school should score 800 on their API. In their elementary schools that offer Spanish immersion courses, three scored above 800 in 2011.
And in a state plagued by financial difficulties, the scores have kept improving even as revenue streams dry up, a Hechinger Report noted. In 2010-2011, the school received $400,000 less in economic income aid (bringing in $3.3 million) because the fund for low-income students decreased by 5 percent. In 2011-2012, a funding stream for low-income learners was eliminated, cutting the district’s budget by more than $220,000.
While some programs have reported that they have had a hard time attracting Latino families who shy away from them because they worry that English or math skills might lag in immersion schools, Baldwin Park has not had a problem recruiting and keeping families involved. The district clearly explains that most of the day’s instruction comes in Spanish when they begin but, as the students get older, they receive half of their lessons in English and half in Spanish.
Teri Muse is a Baldwin Park resident who has two children in the immersion program, one in middle school and one in high school. Students such as hers who want to continue learning in Spanish after elementary school must apply and be accepted into the program if they want to continue. Her children persisted, despite the fact that no one else in the family speaks Spanish.
“We want to be part of the community as much as possible,” Muse explained. Her two older children who aren’t bilingual were at a disadvantage, especially in Baldwin Park where there are a high number of Latino families. “We want them to feel this is their community also.”
Muse knew the program was successful when her daughter (at the time a fourth grader) spent a family vacation in Puerto Vallarta helping a local vendor translate the needs of English-speaking visitors.
The Spanish immersion program also benefited Hermanio Escalante’s three children, the oldest of whom entered kindergarten speaking primarily in Spanish but who is now speaking and reading beyond her grade level in English at Baldwin Park High School.
Escalante came to the U.S. in 1978 and used to struggle speaking English, especially when he was a laborer. He has since obtained a contracting license but fell on hard times after the housing market collapsed — something he wants to ensure never happens to his children.
“I ask her questions like how does she feel about being bilingual,” he said. “She answered me 'I’m going to thank you all my life because I feel that’s the greatest decision you’ve ever made for me, by helping me to live two worlds'.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.