Kids on the leading edge
Dual language immersion a growing trend in education


Holly Yettick
Denver Rocky Mountain News
Monday, August 13, 2001

It used to be Marine Jardonnet could do little more than count, thank and greet in English.

Nowadays, she dreams in the language and reads Harry Potter books, too.

The native French speaker accomplished all this and more in a single year of Denver International School's dual language immersion program.

"When I'm with my English teacher, I think in English," she said. "When I'm with my French teacher, I think in French."

Children like Marine could be the wave of the future, according to Sheila Shannon, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Denver.

That's because even as Coloradans consider an anti-bilingual measure proposed for the 2002 ballot, a different and contradictory vein is running through second language education.

As the 2001-2002 school year starts, there has been a tremendous increase in dual language immersion programs.

In these programs, English speakers are taught in English, plus a foreign language. They go to school alongside foreign language speakers who learn English while maintaining their native languages.

"They learn from each other," said Marine's mother, Alexandrine Jardonnet. "It's a game."

Locally, the Academia Ana Marie Sandoval dual language Montessori school will open with 182 students Aug. 20.

And Denver International School -- which would not be affected by anti-bilingual laws because it's private -- is the largest it's been in the quarter-century of its existence, with an enrollment of 220.

It will add Spanish to its French and German offerings this fall. Parents are willing to pay $6,300 to $7,308 per year to send their children to the school.

State and national numbers mirror these increases.

Membership in the Colorado Consortium of Dual Language Programs has doubled in two years to 20 schools. The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., estimates there are 253 dual language immersion programs nationwide. That's more than twice as many as there were six years ago and more than 250 times more than there were in 1963.

Word-of-mouth, the desire to stop segregating non-English speakers and an increasingly international economy are all contributing to the increase, said Center for Applied Linguistics project director Liz Howard.

Also, she said, "The research indicates the kids do well in these programs."

Several studies link proficiency in more than one language with higher standardized test scores.

"It helps on everything," said Denver International School graduate Juan Pablo Velez, 14, of his fluency in English, Spanish and French. "Especially on vocabulary and language arts. You know all the Latin roots. You can always make out the context better."

But Ron Unz, the California millionaire who has turned his attention to Colorado after championing successful anti-bilingual measures in California, says he has seen no hard evidence that dual language immersion works.

"The thing about dual language programs is that there are very few of them," Unz said. "With numbers that small, it's hard to draw any conclusions. I'm skeptical. Most of the people who claim they work are the same who claim traditional bilingual programs work. It's so obvious the traditional bilingual programs don't work so they've retreated to a program that doesn't exist anywhere."

If dual language is helping anybody, it is the children who arrive at school already knowing English, Unz said.

"What you really do have is numbers of affluent Anglo parents who want their children taught Spanish in school, perhaps even if they have to use Hispanic children as unpaid tutors," he said.

More than 90 percent of dual language programs are Spanish/English, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. And nationwide, low-income non-native English speakers outnumber low-income native English speakers when it comes to dual language immersion, the center reports.

But JoAnn Trujillo Hays, the principal of Sandoval and former principal of the Spanish/English dual language Escuela Bilingue Washington in Boulder, said that far from being used as "unpaid tutors," Hispanic students in dual language programs learn from Anglos and vice versa.

Marine estimates she spent three hours a week helping her classmates learn French. But she said she got as much as she gave.

"They help me back," she said of her native-English-speaking classmates. "If I do an error in English, they tell me how to do it."

Sandoval charges tuition for children 3 through 5 because the district can't afford to fund the school's preschool or full-day kindergarten. Of the 80 students who can afford to pay the full tuition of $355 per month, the majority are native English speakers, Trujillo Hays said.

Originally, the school was supposed to be half native English speakers, half native Spanish speakers. But Head Start funding didn't materialize this school year. So the school that will open this fall will be 60 percent native English and 40 percent native Spanish speakers. That's because full-pay students are more likely to be native English speakers, Trujillo Hays said.

However, the difference should even out over the next few years as the school adds a grade per year, because no tuition will be charged for grades one through six.

And a group of mostly low-income Hispanic parents led by the organization Padres Unidos says they were the ones who wanted the school in the first place after they read that Hispanics did well at Denison Montessori in Denver and Escuela Bilingue Washington in Boulder, a dual language school.

However, former school board member Rita Montero, who supports anti-bilingual measures proposed for Colorado, has said Anglos were actually the ones that wanted the school.

Unz questions whether one can equate a group such as Padres Unidos with Hispanics in general.

"There's a disconnect between activists and ordinary Hispanics," he said.

Shannon of UCD says it's uncertain how the anti-bilingual initiatives Unz and Montero support will affect Colorado's dual language schools.

"It depends on the wording of the initiative," she said. "We don't have the final wording yet. It could create enormous obstacles."