Jul 30, 2014
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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.

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