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Dual Immersion

Hawthorne's Two-Way Bilingual Immersion Program Featured in Daily Breeze

Dual-immersion programs on the rise in South Bay schools

Daily Breeze Article
By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer

Posted: 3/04/2012 06:04:41 PM PDT

Ramona Elementary School in Hawthorne has had a dual immersion program for 15 years with success. Students start kindergarten being spoken to almost completely in a foreign language and then 50-50 in English by third grade.

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Todd Warren's parents don't speak Spanish.

Nonetheless, when the fourth-grader at Ramona Elementary School in Hawthorne was at a Los Angeles Clippers game recently, a group of kids sitting behind him were speaking in Spanish and he surprised them by turning around and joining the conversation.

Todd, who's black, is among the many students taking advantage of the dual-immersion program at Ramona Elementary in Hawthorne.

Dual-immersion instruction is the upgraded version of its more controversial cousin, bilingual education, which California voters put the kibosh on in 1998.

Slowly but surely, its presence is growing in the South Bay and California. 

 

Fourth grader Kailey Tangarite plays a game which teaches Greek roots of words. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

To date, dual-immersion classes have existed only in less affluent South Bay school districts that are majority Latino. But this coming fall, the offering will spread into the beach cities, with the launch of a new program for kindergartners at Washington Elementary School in Redondo Beach.

Last month, the Redondo Beach school board approved the plan, in which the school will add a grade of dual-immersion each year as the 2012-13 kindergartners matriculate.

"When you're learning a language, your cognitive development is getting stronger," said Washington Elementary Principal Jackie O'Sullivan.  2.jpg"You're getting both hemispheres of your brain activated." 

Unlike the kind of bilingual education outlawed by Proposition 227, which catered only to non-native English speakers, dual-immersion classes strive to include a 50-50 mix of native speakers in each of two languages - usually English and Spanish.

Most schools adopt a model in which 90 percent of the instruction is delivered in the non-English language in kindergarten.

The percentage gradually decreases year by year, until fourth or fifth grade (depending on the program), when students are learning in English for half the day and Spanish for the other half.

Kindergarten teacher Lourdes Casillas reads a story in Spanish to her class at Ramona Elementary School in Hawthorne. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

It can be a jarring experience for English-speaking kindergartners. Often, they don't even know that their teacher speaks English. Such is the case at Ramona Elementary in Hawthorne, where, for the early grades, English and Spanish instruction is delivered by separate teachers.

"It's tricking them," said Marisa Stewart, an English learner specialist with the K-8 Hawthorne school district. "The kids are only fooled until about age 7."

The aim isn't to confuse anyone. Instead, educators say, research shows that students will tune out the instruction delivered in the unfamiliar language if they know the teacher will soon address the same topic in their native tongue. 3.jpg

Dual immersion can also be jarring for parents: Trying to help a child with his or her homework when the language is unfamiliar can be an exercise in helplessness.

"It really is a leap of faith," said Brian Markarian, director of educational services at the Hawthorne School District. But it's one he plans to make himself: "I have a 12-week-old at home, and he will certainly be in the dual-immersion program, after seeing what I've seen here."

In terms of test scores, administrators refer to a "lag effect," in which dual-immersion students often lag behind their peers in the early grades, but catch up and surpass them by the end of elementary school.

 

Kindergarten students are spoken to in Spanish 90% of the time in this Ramona Elementary School class. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

For instance, at Ramona School in Hawthorne, the English proficiency rates of last year's dual-immersion second-graders hovered around a third, while that of their peers in the regular classes ranged between 50 and 60 percent. However, among fourth-graders, the dual-immersion students were outperforming the others in English by 6 percentage points and math by 13 points. Dual-immersion fifth-graders were similarly ahead of the others.

Betsy Hamilton, an assistant superintendent in the Lawndale School District, says the research indicates that dual-immersion literally makes kids smarter.

"It does in that your brain is more facile, and makes more connections," she said. "That web of connections strengthens your ability to learn in other areas."

The upcoming program at Washington Elementary in Redondo is by far the newest in the South Bay. Ramona Elementary in Hawthorne launched its dual-immersion classes some 15 years ago. In Lawndale, a two-way immersion class has existed at Mark Twain Elementary for six years. This fall, the Lawndale School District will expand the program to Rogers Middle School.

A dual-immersion class also exists at Denker Avenue Elementary in Gardena, although that one splits instruction between English and Korean. It has been there for at least 20 years.

The existing programs are popular. At Mark Twain Elementary in Lawndale, the annual enrollment period for the 30 or so kindergarten spots usually lasts no more than 24 hours. (This happens in April.)

"We have people that line up at 6 in the morning to get applications," said Beth Mossman, principal at Twain. Most years, she turns some applicants away. "I have a 3-year-old on the waiting list."

Although Hawthorne and Lawndale are both majority Latino districts, the makeup of their dual-immersion classes tends to be split fairly evenly between native English and native Spanish speakers. 4.jpg

In fact, Lawndale's Twain elementary struggled last year to find more native Spanish speakers to keep the 50-50 balance. They settled for a roll of 13 Spanish speakers and 16 English speakers.

Hawthorne's Ramona Elementary tilts the other way, but not by much. In one of its two kindergarten classes, the mix is 50-50; in the other, just under 60 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers.

Dual-immersion instruction has existed in the United States for decades, starting with the 1963 opening of a school in Florida for Cuban refugees who'd fled the Castro regime. It didn't really start to catch on in California until after the 1998 passage of Proposition 227.

 

 

Ramona Elementary School fourth graders Ashley Luna and Charles Henry play a game which teaches them Greek roots of English words. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

The number of schools in California with a dual-immersion component doubled from 1994 to 1998 to almost 100. By 2008, the latest year for which data is available at the California Department of Education, the number had more than doubled again, to 224.