One of the hardest seats to get in Culver City is not at a concert or a sporting event, but in a kindergarten class in the Spanish Immersion Program at El Rincon Elementary School.

Parents seeking to enroll their children in the popular Spanish-language program began lining up for applications at the school’s doors at 4 a.m. Monday. Only 10 slots were open for the next school year, but more than 30 parents waited in line, some sitting on lawn chairs, some listening to the radio and some reading while they waited for the school to open at 8 a.m.

‘Best Education Possible’

“I want my son to get the best education possible, and this program is one of the best,” said Kelly Markowitz, who was trying to keep warm as she stood in line in the early morning outside the school.

Tony Martinez, the first in line, arrived at the school at 4 a.m. to apply for his 5-year-old daughter, Marion. “I don’t speak Spanish. I was hoping that if she spoke Spanish maybe it would rub off on me,” he said.

Pat Cohen, another waiting parent, said: “It is good for children to learn different languages when they are young and their minds are really open to it.”

Culver City’s Spanish Immersion Program, which has a total enrollment of 130 students, is designed to give English-speaking students from kindergarten through the fifth grade intensive training in the Spanish language and culture.

In the program, teachers speak only Spanish with the children for the first two years of school, although the children speak mostly English among themselves and to the teachers, according to Vera Jashni, assistant superintendent of Culver City Unified School District.

English is introduced for about an hour a day in the second grade. In the third through fifth grades, the amount of English instruction is gradually increased to about 40%.

The immersion program is separate from the district’s Spanish bilingual program, which teaches Spanish-speaking students in their native language until they have learned enough English to join mainstream classes.

The Culver City Spanish Immersion Program was established in 1971 and is believed to be the first created by a public school district in the United States, said Russell Campbell, UCLA professor of applied linguistics. Campbell helped create the program, based on a similar model in Canada in which French is taught to English-speaking schoolchildren in Montreal.

Since then, similar programs have been adopted by school districts throughout the country. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District established a two-way Spanish immersion program two years ago designed to improve the English skills of students who speak primarily Spanish and to improve the Spanish skills of those who speak only English.

“The two-way program combines the best of bilingual education for the minority and the best of immersion for the English-speaking child — it’s the best of both worlds,” said Madeline Erhlich, president and founder of Advocates for Language Learning, a Culver City-based organization. The group has more than 1,000 members and chapters throughout the nation. Locally, the group supports the development of foreign language programs in public schools by providing stipends for bilingual aides to teach in Culver City schools and by sponsoring an annual exchange program with students from a school in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Erhlich, whose three children have studied in Culver City’s immersion classes, asked the Board of Education last week to establish a task force to explore ways to improve the district’s foreign language program in middle and high schools. She also asked the board to hire an additional bilingual teacher for the Spanish immersion program and to broaden the current program to allow Spanish-speaking children to participate. The board agreed to look into the matter.

“I think it is a good idea,” school board member Robert G. Knoph said. “One of my major concerns is being able to put staff on it right now. Our staff is spread out thin, but I would like to see it set as a major goal of the district next year.”

Jashni, who was the principal of Linwood Howe Elementary School in 1971 when the Culver City school board established the program there, said the district will hire an additional teacher if the program receives enough students to justify the salary. On the whole, the program is not expensive.

“Basically, students have to be in a class somewhere, and teachers have to be hired to teach. The cost doesn’t vary that much,” Jashni said. The difficulty comes in finding a qualified bilingual teacher for the class, she added.

“Parents often worry about how their children will perform in a classroom where the teacher is only speaking to them in Spanish,” Jashni said. “I remember one parent asking me, ‘What is he going to do when he can’t understand the teacher?’ “

Body Language Is Key

The concerned parent accompanied her son to the kindergarten class. “The teacher told the boy in Spanish to take off his coat, put it in the closet and take a seat. He followed the directions perfectly,” Jashni said. “The mother turned to me and said, ‘I don’t think I have a thing to worry about,’ and walked away.”

The key to communicating with the students is body language, said Irma Wright, a kindergarten teacher who has been with the program since it was established in 1971. “The kindergarten children are more open, more curious and they understand.”

In terms of curriculum and activities, “I do everything that any other teacher does,” she said. “The only difference is that we are teaching in Spanish. Everything else is the same. We are doing everything that Mrs. Jones who teaches the kindergarten class down the hall does. And the kids learn.”

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