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An Altadena Parent's Perspective on Dual Language Immersion

The Pasadena Unified School District has several dual language immersion programs where students learn in English and a second language - here is one parent's experience with it.

Gone are the days when you packed your young ‘un off to kindergarten and depended on the school system to make all the decisions.

These days, parents face a lot of choices – homeschooling, charters, public schools. And then there are choices within the choices, such as the dual language immersion option.

If you’re unfamiliar with PUSD’s dual language immersion program, here are a few Cliffs Notes: When students enter kindergarten, 90% of the classroom instruction and classroom interaction is in a second language, i.e., a language other than English. At least half of the students are native-English speakers.  In the Spanish language immersion class, for example, students learn to read and count only in Spanish.  In subsequent grades, instruction will continue in the second language, but to a lesser degree, until eventually classroom instruction is half-English and half-Spanish.

Aside from the practical benefits of speaking two languages, some educators believe that a bilingual education enhances creativity and analytical skills.  

In theory, this all sounds pretty darned good. But how does it pan out in practice? What special challenges might the kindergarteners face – particularly those who are, initially, completely unfamiliar with the second language.

I talked to Courtney Scrabeck, an Altadena resident whose son Hartwell has completed kindergarten at San Rafael’s Spanish immersion class. To cut to the chase, Scrabeck loves the program, and says it combines the personal attention one might find at a charter with the accountability that’s expected of a good public school. “It’s like our own little school within a school.”

But she doesn’t wave away the challenges.

Q: How did you did you prepare Hartwell for his first year of school?

Before school started, he spent the summer in a dual language immersion summer school, and that really helped. It was just three hours a day and a relaxed, fun atmosphere. They sang Spanish songs, and learned their alphabet and numbers, met the other kids who would be in their class the coming year.

Q: When school started, was there a period of adjustment?

A: It was hard at first, maybe harder than I expected.  At the beginning of the school year, Hartwell  not only found himself  in a brand new environment, and by that I mean the school itself and the culture of school,  but he had to navigate through all this novelty in Spanish. It can be somewhat overwhelming for all concerned – the students, the parents. And the teachers! They have to communicate with 25 little children in a language some of the kids have never heard before.

Hartwell is really calm and easy-going, but still within the first three months he had a meltdown in the car on the way to school. I'd say it took some time for it all to sink in…

Q: An Aha! moment?

A: Yes, an Aha! At some point, it all started to come together for him.

Q: I understand the primary teacher will not speak  English to the children, nor will the teacher talk to parents in English if the children are within earshot. Does this pose a problem?

A: Yes, that’s a little rough at first. I knew this was how it worked, but didn’t fully appreciate what that would mean. I know some Spanish, but I can’t necessarily understand the subtleties, the inflections. In English, if someone says your child is doing well, you can tell what they mean by “well.” Whether it's “Well!” or a “well”  with reservations. It helps when there’s another parent around who is fluent in Spanish.

If there’s a pressing need, the teacher can pull you aside and speak in English. Plus, I’ve found both teacher and principal are very accessible by phone and email. And the parent-teacher conferences are in English.

But it makes volunteering in the classroom difficult, if you can’t understand the teacher. So in some ways, I feel as though I’m sending Hartwell off to boarding school.

Q: What effect does this multi-tasking -- learning everything in a second language -- have on his other skills such as math?

A: Initially, the kids learn some things at a slower pace and test lower on average than other children. But this is temporary. And I already see the payback.  After a year, I have a six year old who can speak both English and some Spanish – isn’t that amazing?  

Q: Do you and Hartwell ever converse with each other in Spanish?

A: No, because first of all, I don’t want him to pick up my accent – his is already much better than mine.  And aside from that, when Hartwell comes home from school, he wants to speak only English. Although, every now and then he will, without thinking, drop in a Spanish word, here and there.

Steve Lamb June 12, 2012 at 04:42 PM
The PUSD does a piss poor job teaching most kids English. This program is an insult on many levels. They should be putting this money and these resources into teaching English well to ALL children. AMAZING!
pusddad June 12, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Young minds more easily learn new languages. Small minds criticise things they don't understand.
Allibazzer June 12, 2012 at 05:59 PM
My son Is in the Spanish DLIP at San Rafael. He has learned to speak, understand and read Spanish as well as everything else in a Kinder curriculum.. Those language skills, with minimal guidance from me, have themselves translated into reading and writing in English! I applaud PUSD in supporting this program and the marvelous teachers and families it attracts. I invite any doubters to check I out.
Stuart Baur June 12, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Our daughter is in the Mandarin immersion program at Field Elementary, and we would describe her experience (and that program in general) as an overwhelming success. Her first year certainly came with a few challenges, and our daughter experienced some of the same trials adjusting to both the environment and the language that Ms. Scrabeck saw with her son, but she adapted quickly and came to love the experience, It amazes me on a daily basis to see how some thoughts form in her head in English and others in Mandarin. She swtiches effortlessly between the two and is now comfortable speaking to perfect strangers in Mandarin. Other parents we see around the community who are native speakers are astounded at how well she speaks and amazed that such a progressive program would be supported by a public school. PUSD is certainly not without its faults, but supporting language immersion programs is unequivocally one of its strengths. Instead of abandoning these programs as Mr. Lamb so myopically suggests, perhaps there's something to be learned from the immersion programs and applied to the traditional curriculum about how to better engage both students and parents alike and make learning not only effective, but fun.
Corey Hegger June 12, 2012 at 07:56 PM
We're in the Mandarin-immersion program as well and love it. An interesting thing to note, Steve, is this program is attracting students to PUSD. We moved to Altadena from La Crescenta for the program and students in my son's class are from Arcadia, Temple City, South Pasadena, La Crescenta - all better-performing districts. Quite a few students have also dropped out of prestigious private schools to enroll in the Mandarin program. In short, the dual language immersion programs are bringing people to the district that otherwise would not be there.
Keith Croket June 13, 2012 at 03:02 AM
I actually think my son's learning Spanish in the dual immersion program has accelerated his knowledge of English and his ability to read it. I like to think that the program unlocked the part of his brain that deals with comprehension of language both English and Spanish. Enrolling him in the program was a great idea (all to the credit of my wife) Kc
navigio June 13, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Glendale unified has, I believe, 7 different languages on 9 different sites. They attract families from outside the district, including from pusd. Given that they are asked to make a k-6 commitment, it's unlikely those Pasadena area kids will ever return to pusd. If pusd is doing anything wrong on this front it is in not having enough dual immersion. It is also surprising that anyone would fail to see the benefit in multilingualism today.
Karin Bugge June 13, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Wow, I just took a look at the Glendale immersion program -- very impressive. As I understand it PUSD increased the number of classes for next year.
Corey Hegger June 13, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Yes, both the Spanish and Mandarin programs are growing here as well. And Glendale loses students to us as well.
Alison Johnson June 13, 2012 at 05:34 PM
The district is teaching Mandarin, but will they ever consider immersion in Cantonese? Most Chinese-language speakers we know here have Cantonese as their first language, not Mandarin (and for those not in the know, these are about as different as Portuguese and Italian-- similar roots, but often barely mutually understandable. They just use the same characters for writing the words.). I would think that Cantonese would be more applicable to international trade and to working with immigrant populations here in America. Also-- my daughter is entering 4th grade next year. Is it too late for enrollment in immersion?
Corey Hegger June 13, 2012 at 06:35 PM
@Allison: there will be a 4th grade class next year in Mandarin-immersion, but your daughter would have to test into it. There are a lot of Cantonese-speaking families in the program that want their children to learn Mandarin since it is more prevalent.
Karin Bugge June 14, 2012 at 05:29 PM
I'm curious as to how the school districts select the second languages. For example, unlike Pasadena, Glendale doesn't offer Mandarin Chinese, but it does offer Japanese, Korean, and many of the usual suspects from Europe.
Christy Garcia June 18, 2013 at 05:00 PM
Learning one, two or three languages is a blessing! The best time to acquire a second language is in early childhood. A child's cognitive development is pure and able to adapt, accommodate, and assimilate without prejudices. An Immersion program that is taught by highly qualified teachers can be successful. It is most effective with professionals or parents who implement it and believe in the methods and strategies used. I have taught it and implemented it at home. I have my 6 year old now speaking 3 languages. Spanish, English and French. She has been translating verbally since she was 3 and now is learning to translate in writing. Congratulations/ Felicidades!

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