Immersion program gets A+

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday September 13, 2000

Greg Martin hushes his first grade, two-way immersion class, and cuts out the lights. 

“Tranquilo,” says the Cragmont Elementary School teacher.  

He gives every instruction to the class in perfect Spanish. 

The 3-year-old K to 5 program has the administration, teachers and parents raving about its results. In kindergarten and first grade, the children receive 90 percent of instruction in Spanish. In second and third grade, 60-80 percent of the instruction is in Spanish. Fourth- and fifth- graders study half the time in English and half the time in Spanish. 

The program is aimed at producing bilingual and biliterate students. Research by Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas shows that the students come away from the program not only with the ability to read and write in a different language, but also with a greater mental flexibility.  

Research from similar programs in the state that have been in operation for over seven years shows that many students have a much greater capacity for complex subject matter at the secondary level and often experience honors status and enroll in advanced placement classes. 

The program is funded by a Title VII foreign language grant at Rosa Parks, Cragmont and LeConte elementary schools. Rosa Parks (then Columbus) and Cragmont were the first to implement the program in 1998. LeConte began the program just this year. 

“We have a waiting list,” said Cragmont principal Jason Lustig. “Every year people want to get their kids in.” 

The children are chosen by lottery, and parents lucky enough to have kids in the program, tend to keep them there. 

“What we’re seeing is that we don’t have normal attrition,” Lustig said. “Parents in Berkeley are really committed to this program. It’s really exciting.” 

Some eight students from the first two-way immersion class at Cragmont beginning in the fall of 1998 have left. Every kindergartner in the program last year returned. 

The program now has to address the problem next year when children will enter fourth grade, where children are instructed at a 27 to one ratio, rather than 20 to one.  

Next year, the first crop of kids in the program will be moving into the fourth grade at Rosa Parks and Cragmont schools.  

At last week’s school board meeting, a dozen or so parents of children in the program showed up in support of the program. 

Lustig said that parents, staff and school board members have been raising the question of what will happen when the class size is supposed to increase. “We’ve known that next year we would have to be ready,” he said. 

Lustig said that in such an intensive program where students are preparing for literacy in two languages, it would hinder the level of instruction and impede the progress of other two-way immersion students if they added new students to get to the mandated 27. 

A task force spearheaded by Lustig and Rosa Parks Title VII grant coordinator Allison Kelley met six times last school year and put together two plans for the school board to choose from. 

In the first plan, which Lustig said is the most likely to be implemented, the two-way immersion students would be taught science and math in Spanish in the morning, then history and language arts in the afternoon. 

The following year, the students would flip-flop morning and afternoon subjects – history and language arts instruction in Spanish in the morning, with the other subjects taught in the afternoon in English. 

Lustig said this program would cost the schools roughly $15,000 each to implement this program, but said that they don’t consider cost to be a serious barrier. 

The second plan would be to designate an entire site in Berkeley as two-way immersion. Lustig said that by choosing a specific school as two-way immersion, the district would be able to serve a greater number of students and a provide a more cohesive program. 

Once a site was chosen the program would be phased in over time with one grade-level each year, which would take six years to extend from kindergarten to the fifth grade. 

“There are definite advantages to dedicating an entire site,” Lustig said. 

Such as having an entire school community supporting the educational objectives. It would also solve the dilemma of compromising the percentage of time needed for English language development by maintaining the appropriate percentages of enrichment classes taught. 

Superintendent Jack McLaughlin said they hope to sort it out and make a decision by early November.