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Immersion classes popularity soars

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Wednesday May 02, 2001

Flying in the face of Proposition 227, the voter-approved 1998 law abolishing bilingual education in California schools, the Berkeley brand of bilingual education has become one of the school district’s most popular programs in recent years. 

The district has had to turn away some parents lining up to get their kids into the so-called “Two-way Immersion” program, which accepts three classes of 20 kindergartners each year districtwide, based on a lottery.  

“Many families see this as an incredible advantage for their children,” said Alison Kelly, coordinator of a federal grant that has helped implement the dual immersion model in Berkeley. 

Each dual immersion class is made up of half native English speakers and half native Spanish speakers. The students are kept together throughout their six years in elementary school, with the idea that much of what they learn they will learn from each other.  

In addition to the primary goal of making all the students fluent in English and Spanish, the program aims to create cross-cultural understanding and to enhance students’ overall capacity to learn. 

Pointing to research from schools where the dual immersion model has been in place for 12 years or more, Kelly said the students, whether their native language is Spanish or English, perform well above average on standardized tests by the time they get to high school. 

Native English speakers do particularly well, she said, “They tend to be in honors and (advanced placement) classes in high school. They’re so much more capable because they’ve had to deal with two languages.” 

The dual immersion program began in 1997 at Rosa Parks and Cragmont elementary schools, where grades K-3 have 20 dual immersion students apiece today. LeConte School has dual immersion class at the kindergarten and first grade levels. All three schools will eventually have dual immersion classes in grades K-5. 

In accordance with Proposition 227, parents must sign a waiver to place their students in the program, where instruction is almost entirely in Spanish during the kindergarten year. The percentage of instruction in Spanish is gradually cut over subsequent years until the fourth and fifth grades, where teachers teach in Spanish 50 percent of the time and English 50 percent of the time.  

The dual immersion curriculum, in math, science and so forth, is the same as that of other Berkeley elementary school classes. 

School administrators say the program’s popularity has contributed to a range of improvements in the overall school atmosphere, from increased parent involvement in school activities to improved relations between Latino students and their peers.  

“There’s a lot of parent involvement, which is almost a given, because parents have researched the program,” said Cragmont Principal Jason Lustig. “They understand what it takes from the family end to be in the program.” 

Lustig said he has noticed increased interaction between Hispanic students and other students on the playground since the program was instituted. Not only can the students communicate freely, where before there was a language barrier, but they seem to have developed a respect for cultural differences that was absent before, Lustig said. 

“Symbolically it really strongly acknowledges the minority language and culture...having English speakers struggle through (the first couple years in Spanish), but participate willingly and excitedly,” Lustig said. 

By beginning instruction primarily in Spanish, Kelly said the program actually reverses the traditional problem of students with limited English beginning school at a disadvantage. Here, it’s the native English speakers who are playing catch up. 

“The English speakers are the one who are in shellshock initially,” Kelly said. “Latinos, in those first two years, are clearly the teachers of the class. 

“We’re trying to building academic proficiency for both groups,” Kelly continued. “It gives greater access to the curriculum (for native Spanish speakers), which they usually don’t have. For the English speakers, it’s basically an enrichment opportunity.” 

Their is ample evidence for the later claim. Native English speakers seem to thrive in the program, logging stronger and stronger test scores as the years go by and demonstrating their Spanish proficiency at every opportunity. 

“My daughter is fluent,” bragged Rosa Parks parent Maureen Katz, whose daughter is finishing her third year in the dual immersion program. “We walk by people who are speaking Spanish just casually on the streets and she’ll start laughing. I ask her what she’s laughing at and she says, ‘Oh, they were telling the funniest joke, mom.’” 

But, as Kelly readily admits, the dual immersion program has not yet impacted the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their peers. After four years in the program, native Spanish speakers at Rosa Parks still scored far lower than native English speakers on the Stanford 9 tests in reading last year. 

Kelly downplayed these results, however, saying research shows that native Spanish speakers in dual immersion programs don’t usually see strong gains in academic performance until the fifth grade and beyond.  

The alternative to dual immersion for Berkeley students with limited English – and the only alternative for many California students under Proposition 227 – is to simply be inserted in regular all English classes from the get go. Kelly said research shows clearly that these students fail to develop the proficiency in either language needed for high level learning, so that their academic performance actually goes into decline in the fifth grade and beyond. 

Lustig said dual immersion program holds a great deal of promise for Berkeley students. 

“I’ve always worked at schools with bilingual programs, and the two way immersion program is by far the best model,” he said. “It’s structurally very clear and it makes sense.”