PALO ALTO, Calif. _ “Buenos dias,” says Gary Prehn, principal of Escondido Elementary School on campus at Stanford University.
“Hola, Senor Gary!” answer the first- and second-graders in teacher Julie Bramlet’s class.
Just like America’s other schoolchildren, these kids are busy learning their reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. But in four of Escondido’s classrooms, students are learning these subjects in Spanish.
Welcome _ or rather, bienvenido _ to a unique education program called two-way immersion. The program combines bilingual education for students who are native speakers of a language other than English with immersion in another language for English-speaking students.
In this case, students are learning the regular state curriculum as any other classroom would _ only they’re learning it in Spanish.
The program here includes a kindergarten class, a first-grade class, a combination first-and-second-grade class and a second-grade class. Eventually, as the students make their way toward the third, fourth and fifth grades, the languages spoken, read and written in the classroom will approach 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent English.
Until then, in these early classes, the teacher and the children communicate only in Spanish _ even when a visitor to the classroom speaks to them in English.
“Even when the principal comes in and asks a question,” says Prehn, “I get a response in Spanish. I just have to figure it out.”
That’s what the kids do. The walls are colorfully decorated with such signs as estudiante de la semana (student of the week) and el calendario (calendar).
Alexander Diaz, 6, is turning the pages of a book titled “Aqui Es Donde Vivimos” (This Is Where We Live). And Crystal Valencia, 6, is speaking in Spanish with another little girl.
Then Bramlet rings a bell and says to the class, “Tienen que limpiar.” (You need to clean up.)
“The goal for both groups of students is to become bilingual and biliterate in two languages,” says Kathryn Lindholm, a child-education professor at San Jose State University.
Lindholm is a researcher, author and program developer of two-way immersion programs who has worked with the California State Department of Education and evaluated about 20 such programs in schools throughout the state.
The benefits of two-way immersion go beyond learning another language, says Lindholm.
“Students develop positive attitudes about themselves as learners. They feel academically competent. They also develop high levels of motivation. And because they’re really integrated with each other in the classroom, they develop positive attitudes toward other groups. When you look out at the playground, you can see this integration in practice.”
In California, other two-way immersion programs are taught in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The programs require the same funding that any public classroom requires, Lindholm says. But teachers must be fluent in the other language. She estimated that there are more than 200 two-way immersion programs at schools across the country.
“This is a program where all the children benefit,” says Irv Rollins of the Palo Alto Unified School District.
“As an educator, I’ve been concerned about Spanish-speaking students in regular (English-only) classrooms. They’re quiet. They’re non-verbal. They don’t interact. They don’t have opportunities to lead.
“But in the immersion program, the Spanish-speaking children are stepping out and assuming leadership roles.”
Rollins says he sees benefits to native English-speaking students as well.
“When I first visited a class, I asked myself, ‘How in the world are these children ever going to learn this?’ Later, I can see they not only understand _ they’re talking to each other in Spanish in a very natural way. It’s incredible. The English-speaking kids are speaking Spanish and the Spanish-speaking kids are learning English. It’s a win-win situation.”
Ben Lloyd, co-chair of the Spanish Immersion Parents Association of Palo Alto, agrees.
The parents group has two functions, Lloyd says. “One is ensuring the program’s continuity. The other is helping address any of the problems, issues or opportunities that may come up. We’re a pretty committed group of parents.”
Lloyd says there haven’t been any problems with the program. “We want the program to continue. We’re working with the school board” to keep it in Palo Alto for the long term.
The board, he adds, is considering how a “choice” program such as this fits in with the concept of a neighborhood school, where children living in one area attend their nearby school. In choice programs, students from neighboring areas attend the school.
The Palo Alto program originated at another school two years ago but moved to Escondido this year to accommodate its expansion.
Participation is voluntary. Lloyd’s son, Max, 7, is in second grade and in his third year of the program. His daughter Maya, 5, just started the program in kindergarten. “We really want our kids to be full members of our global community,” Lloyd says. “But the United States is one of a few countries that don’t emphasize a second language. In the next century, knowing a second language will be an invaluable skill _ to be able to communicate in other languages and to understand other cultures.”
When Lloyd’s family visited Spain, he says, “it was very exciting for (Max) to realize he could understand and communicate with the people there. His sense of self- accomplishment is greater because of the program. He can do math and science and talk about the rain forest in Spanish and in English.
“For (native) Spanish-speaking students, this program gives them not only an opportunity to learn English, it offers them a chance to be Spanish-literate, to study their own language and culture in a way they’d otherwise not have.”
This is an advantage that Bernardo and Paulina Mendoza appreciate.
“We’re interested in their learning to read and write in Spanish,” says Paulina Mendoza of her daughters, Flavia, 5, and Marlene, 6, who are in the program. Their two older daughters, who are not in the program, can speak Spanish but don’t read or write it fluently.
And how do they like the program so far?
“Estan encantadas (they’re delighted),” she says. “They’re learning things so quickly. And they really like school.”
In Caterina Porcella’s second-grade class, when Erik, 7, is asked how old he is, he answers immediately in Spanish _ “siete.” And when asked if he knows a little Spanish or a lot of Spanish, he answers, “mucho espanol.”
“The Spanish-speaking kids are developing their native language and the English- speaking kids are learning a new language,” says Porcella. “Both groups will (eventually) be able to read, write and speak in both languages. I’m really impressed with the work both groups are doing.”
In addition, she says: “The Spanish-speaking kids are able to be role models in this program. That wouldn’t happen in a regular classroom. In my classroom, I ask them, ‘Who can help me explain this?’ It’s also a nice way of integrating the kids because they’re really learning from one another. They’re learning to depend on each other.”
Over in Magdalena Fittoria’s first-grade class, students are matching pictures of fruit with their names in Spanish.
“No puedo encontrar mis uvas (I can’t find my grapes),” says Charlotte, 6, to Fittoria. When asked her name, she introduces herself to a visitor as Carlotta and says she is “seis.”
“I’m not just teaching the children isolated words in Spanish _ they’re learning math, reading, science, art and critical thinking skills,” Fittoria says later. “It’s the same basic curriculum. It just happens to be in Spanish. It’s very active learning. They’re also learning to respect others’ cultures.
“Being bilingual is a very valuable resource,” says Fittoria, who was born in Mexico. “This country talks a lot about the global society, but we limit ourselves in the U.S. because we’re so restricted in one language. But in other countries, it’s the norm _ not the exception _ to be bilingual.”
Fittoria has five native Spanish-speaking students in her class, out of a total of 20 students. “The ideal is 50 percent native Spanish speakers and 50 percent native English speakers,” Fittoria says, “but the program can still be successful without that proportion.”
In a regular English-speaking classroom, she says, the native Spanish-speakers would “be the kids who’d feel they don’t fit in. But here, they’re gaining self- confidence because not only do they understand, they’re also challenged to help those who don’t by translating and leading in group activities. Meanwhile, they’re learning English by interacting with their peers.
“It’s really a two-way immersion. There’s a real exchange that’s taking place on both levels.”
Principal Prehn can attest to this. His son Mark, 6, is a first-grader in the program.
“I took my boys to dinner last spring. My other son, who’s in the eighth grade and in his second year of Spanish, was studying for a test. Well, my younger son was helping his older brother study for his test.
“I can see the effects of the immersion program with Mark. His experience with Spanish is very rich. He’s adept at pronouncing words and at rolling his r’s. He’s developed a fluency that he can take beyond school that will continue to flourish, beyond language that will help become a well-rounded person.”