By Julie Sweitzer, Parent, Park Spanish Immersion School, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
The answer seems so obvious now, but six years ago the concept seemed too radical to consider seriously. Sending my baby off in the care of strangers and trusting them to teach her reading, writing, and arithmetic in English was difficult enough. Surely asking her to learn from people who spoke in a language neither she nor her parents understood was an unnecessary complication. Fortunately we decided to explore language immersion before rejecting it, and in doing so completely changed our minds, and our children’s futures. Now that we are in our fifth year (and second child) of immersion schooling, answering the question Why immersion? has become easy. At an American Council on Immersion Education (ACIE) workshop with other immersion parents, as well as in other conversations, I have learned that we all had similar reasons. Perhaps sharing my top seven reasons will encourage other parents to fully explore immersion for their children.
Children of today will need to be bilingual to be successful in the global society and economy of their adulthood. Today two languages are useful – tomorrow they will be required, and a third language will be desired.
Childhood is the best time to develop an appreciation and understanding of diverse cultures, peoples, and perspectives in the world. Preschoolers are aware of differences, but harmful prejudices develop during the elementary school ages. Consistent positive exposure and interaction are the best prevention.
An optimal time to learn languages is prior to age twelve. Research on brain development in recent decades supports this claim, with wide discussion in the popular media. Our brains are wired to produce all sounds, but if we don’t learn to make certain sounds, we can lose that ability. (Some of us use this as a convenient excuse for our difficulty in learning another language as an adult, but it isn’t a barrier – just a reason to start young.)
Children learn language by listening and repeating, and don’t have any fear of a “foreign” language. This was one of those clic! moments for me, when I realized that immersion teachers taught the immersion language in the very same manner children already learn English – by speaking and repeating in context. It is very natural for children. My children attended a university preschool where many of the children spoke a different language at home, yet even the newest children participated fully, understood, and quickly spoke in English. Again, there is research to support this concept, and schools recruiting students should make copies available, but it is a common-sense explanation as well.
Academic skills are actually enhanced. Studies consistently show that immersion students do as well as or better than comparable non-immersion students in English language skills, math, science, and social studies. If you’ve studied another language, you know that those classes taught you much of what you know about English grammar. Increasingly, research has also demonstrated connections between math, music, and language skills.
Children are guaranteed to be challenged. Immersion learning takes extra effort from children (and parents) in that reading and writing skills need to be practiced in two languages. I was surprised to learn that programming for gifted children can be difficult in the early years, when their minds work faster than their developed vocabulary in the new language. A successful immersion program provides both gifted and special education assistance to meet the needs of all students.
Parents will be involved. In most districts, parents have to choose to send their child to an immersion school. I expected, and it is true, that the parent community would be supportive of the school, the children, and each other. Involved parents are one of the most critical elements of a successful educational program.
So how did we learn these things, and how can you share them with others? I went to an open house, before our school even existed. Copies of many research summaries were provided, and I read them all. I talked to parents in other immersion programs, who reinforced the research by confirming that their children’s skill levels were age-appropriate in all subjects. Most importantly, I watched the teachers who would be opening our school demonstrate a lesson in Spanish with a group of English-speaking kindergartners. The kids participated and responded, even with an audience. Those “strangers” to whom I was going to entrust my child were no longer strangers, and were obviously skilled. Suddenly it was clear what our decision would be. My heart followed where my head had led, and as Robert Frost first said in The Road Not Taken, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
My concern back then (which turned out to be justified) was that with so many people vying for spots in the same trendy schools, the chances of getting into a school via the Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) within the School District of Philadelphia or selected in a charter lottery is small. I listed several schools that I thought were worth further consideration that might be off of the radar of most parents. Here is what I wrote about them:
Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures (FACTS) Charter School (Chinatown) This Chinese language immersion elementary school has a diverse student body (70% Asian, 21% African-American) stellar math scores, but pretty low reading scores. FACTS serves many immigrant students (i.e., non-native English speakers), I presume that the low reading scores are in part the result of that, but I have no evidence to confirm that hypothesis. I love the idea of a language immersion programs, so this school is particularly attractive to me.
Christopher Columbus Charter School (Bella Vista)–They have a nice diversity (35% African American, 51% White) and almost all of their teachers have 5 or more years of teaching experience. They have a troubling 22:1 student/teacher ratio (as does Independence charter, by the way), however and the parent involvement website hasn’t been updated in almost a year.
Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School (South Philadelphia)- It’s hard to argue with their test scores–90% score proficient or higher on math 71% on reading (3rd grade). Not sure my oldest would be interested in this type of curriculum though.
What factors were most important to you? School Performance (test scores, success of graduates), Diversity, Special Programs (language immersion, music, etc.)
What first attracted you to the school? The main attraction to this school was its bilingual program. But once I visited the school, I was really impressed with the staff, the teaching curriculum and the diversity in the school. Additionally, the grounds for the lower school are great.
What were the critical factors that led to your choice? The teaching curriculum which not only teaches French and English but additional languages. And the fact that the kids at this school come from a variety of economic status and cultures.
Did you relocate in order to choose this school? No
On the political spectrum, I consider myself to be liberal
Please share anything else about your experience This school is not only for French speaking families. The diversity in the children’s cultures really make this school unique.
Playground and New Mural at Independence Charter School
In the language immersion program, students at Independence Charter (ICS) get 90% of their curriculum in Spanish. I have already made it clear my infatuation with the idea of language immersion programs and the benefits for cognitive development in elementary school. In a conversation with someone at Independence Charter, I learned about a benefit that I hadn’t ever previously considered, and possibly one of the root causes of the measured difference. Continue reading →