The signs hang nearly everywhere in Lynn Angelo’s classroom at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Davis.
They’re on the windows, the doors, the calendar.
“La ventana,” they read. “La puerta.” “El calendario.”
The Spanish labels mark the uniqueness of this Davis Joint Unified School District campus.
At Chavez, children who speak English as their mother tongue come to school to learn to add, subtract, read and even play basketball through lessons delivered only in Spanish.
Chavez is one of a growing number of schools nationwide that offers students immersion in a second language. But it’s the only Sacramento-area campus that delivers either all or the majority of instruction in a foreign language, regardless of the subject.
“It’s hard to pick up another language unless you’re truly immersed in it,” Angelo, a first-grade teacher, said of the benefits of immersion programs.
A massive body of research supports her endorsement of language-immersion education. Study after study finds that the longer students are immersed in a second language, the quicker they attain fluency.
At Chavez, most children show up for the first day of kindergarten not knowing a word of Spanish. Some might know just a few phrases. But when they walk into their new classrooms, they are addressed only in Spanish by their teachers. It can be baffling at first, but the children eventually pick up the meaning of the words spoken to them through visual cues or by watching the teacher act out a direction delivered in Spanish.
Children are encouraged to speak only Spanish in the classroom. They often revert to English, though, only to be gently reminded to speak Spanish. On the playground, most children fall back on English, but some speak Spanish throughout their entire school day.
Across the country, about 250 public schools are running immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, French, Farsi and other languages. About 150 of the schools are in California.
Champions of immersion programs say the move toward bilingualism allows children to better compete for jobs in a global market. And with the nation and state becoming more diverse ethnically, fluency in a foreign language, particularly Spanish, becomes increasingly important.
“The state of California is really rich in language resources,” said Maria Quezada, executive director for the California Association for Bilingual Education. “If we can develop those languages, we’re a much stronger state and nation.”
In Angelo’s class one morning a few days before the Christmas break, students sat in small groups sounding out words in a first-grade primer.
“G-A-T-O,” read one child, mastering the Spanish word for cat.
Angelo slowly sounded out words for the children, pointing to pictures that illustrated the word being studied. The entire lesson was conducted in Spanish. Even classroom directions about lining up for recess or placing books on shelves are given in Spanish.
Parents say kindergartners can take longer to adjust to a language-immersion school than to a traditional school. After all, the first day of kindergarten can be scary even when the classroom is run in one’s native language. But wariness is usually quickly replaced with excitement over learning a new language, parents and children say.
“My son now has a love of languages,” Sheila Randolph said of her third-grade son. “Now he wants to learn Japanese.”
Chavez offers students more time immersed in the target language than most other immersion schools.
At Chavez, children in kindergarten and first grade are educated solely in Spanish. During second grade, lessons are taught in English 5 percent of the school day, with the amount of instruction in English rising every year thereafter until fifth and sixth grades when 30 percent of the school day is conducted in English.
The majority of the nation’s immersion programs are called two-way or dual-immersion programs, in which instruction is split nearly equally between English and the target language. These schools let students whose first language is not English be educated part of the day in their mother tongue.
Dual-immersion programs also offer children more opportunities to learn from each other. For instance, in a Spanish-English program, native Spanish-speaking children sometimes help native English speakers during the Spanish portion of the day. The reverse is true during English lessons.
“When your peers speak the target language, the exposure is more natural,” said David Dolson, a consultant in the California Department of Education’s language policy office. “Interaction with a teacher is not as natural.”
On average, students in language-immersion programs score lower on standardized tests given in English during their first few years in school, but they usually catch up to their peers’ scores by fourth or fifth grade.
At Chavez, reading and language arts in English are introduced in the third grade. However, many children teach themselves to read some English before they are formally trained, using the phonetics system they learned with Spanish.
For parents who don’t speak a second language, having a child in an immersion program can pose challenges. Homework is sometimes one of those challenges.
“I’ve picked up bits of Spanish along the way,” said Randolph. “And I have a Spanish-English dictionary. If we get stumped, we use it.”
Some teachers at Chavez translate homework directions into English for parents, and the school offers Spanish survival classes for parents.
Randolph added that her sons have learned to be more independent about their homework since their parents can’t always help them.
Davis Joint Unified’s immersion program was started by parents nearly 20 years ago. It was limited to a few classes at one school site, but over time, it became so popular it took over an entire school.
According to Billie Egolf, Chavez’s interim principal, the majority of parents are highly involved in their children’s education and even run a school library they assembled to let children bring home Spanish reading books.
This level of parental involvement is typical of immersion programs, experts say. These parents have chosen an alternative form of education for their children, and that choice seems to result in a high degree of personal commitment.
Egolf and some parents warn, though, that language immersion schools aren’t always a good fit for all children.
“Some children aren’t strong (academically) in either English or Spanish,” said Egolf. “It just doubles their load to try to do two languages.”
Mary Nicholson, who has two children at Chavez and plans to enroll a third child next year, believes acquiring a second language is much like learning to play a musical instrument.
“Some have a natural ability and flourish,” Nicholson said. “Others don’t have it.”
And educators say that not all children become fluent after attending immersion programs. Most students, though, attain a high level of language competency and often take advanced language classes in junior high and high school.
“Some will go on and use the language for the rest of their lives,” said Nicholson. “For others, it will just have been something they were exposed to for part of their education.”
Randolph believes the Chavez program has been a “gift” for her boys.
“It’s a tremendous boost to the kids,” she said. “They’re going to be bilingual. They’ll have more options. Language won’t be a barrier as to whom they can be friends with.”
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The Bee’s Pamela Martineau can be reached at (916) 321-1074 or [email protected]