At Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School, students are taught lessons every week in a combination of Spanish, English and Mandarin. The public school, which has more than 400 students on its wait list, is hoping to eventually add a fourth language, the principal says, to better prepare pupils for the global economy.
“I think as we become more and more globally aware, we’re realizing that kids need to be prepared to be competitive in world markets,” said Principal Jorge Ramirez. “Kids need to be multilingual and multiliterate.”
From Chula Vista to Laguna Niguel and Sacramento, public schools are creating dual-language immersion programs at a fast pace. The California Department of Education estimates there are 318 bilingual immersion programs in the state, up from 201 in 2006.
“We have more research now that shows students who develop two or three languages to a high level have certain cognitive advantages,” said Julie Sugarman, a research associate with the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. “They do as well or better than their peers in English-only programs.”
California has long been considered a leader of the programs, establishing its first in the early 1980s.
The dual-language immersion programs are not nearly as controversial as the bilingual programs outlawed by Proposition 227 more than a decade ago. Unlike the original bilingual classes, which catered to non-native English speakers, the new programs are designed to blend English speakers and non-native speakers, to allow everyone to learn a second language. Schools are getting around the bilingual education ban with yearly parental waivers or are operating as charter schools, which do not require the parental waivers.
About 50,000 students are enrolled in dual-language programs in California, state Department of Education officials say, and about half of them are English learners. Ninety percent of the programs offer Spanish as the second language, followed by Mandarin (4 percent), Korean (3 percent) and other languages (3 percent).
Two new Chinese immersion charter schools are expected to open in Orange County in the fall, and school officials in eastern San Diego County are planning to implement dual-language programs soon. Many existing programs are so popular that they have long waiting lists.
At El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, kindergartners are taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. Each following year, the language balance shifts closer to 50-50, where it eventually stays.
Monique Daviss, the school’s executive director, estimates that a handful of students opt out of the program each year, but those who remain thrive. The school’s state API scores are 880 this year, up from 784 three years ago. It has received a California Distinguished School award and the California Association for Bilingual Education Seal of Excellence.
Dual-language programs typically follow a similar model, but there are many variations. Some programs split the English and second language 50-50 for all grade levels. Some also make sure there’s an even balance in classes between English learners and English speakers.
At Wedgeworth Elementary School in Hacienda Heights, students in the dual-language immersion program have their lessons taught half in Mandarin and half in English. Students are taught some of every subject in both languages, to become familiar with academic terms.
The program was created four years ago at the urging of Chinese parents, said Barbara Nakaoka, superintendent of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District. Most of the students at the school are Chinese, but the immersion program also serves children from other backgrounds.
One of the biggest challenges is finding quality Mandarin teaching materials, said Bonnie Wilson, the program’s executive director.
“Most of our teachers end up creating their own,” Wilson said. “What they’re trying to do is keep up with California state standards.”
Dual-language programs across the state face similar hurdles. Finding quality teachers interested and trained in immersion methodology is another challenge. Then there are the critics – people who question whether public dollars ought to support such specialized instruction.
Sugarman notes that not all programs are produced equally.
"Some are better than others,” she said. “Having a commitment to the model is important. Once you start tinkering, for example, adding more English out of fear that students aren’t learning English, the students are worse off.”
Dual-language immersion programs in California do not receive any special monitoring or funding from the state. They are not required to test or report results for students’ knowledge of the second language, though that is recommended.
And not all programs have thrived. State Department of Education officials say at least seven dual-language programs have been discontinued in recent years.
At Laguna Nueva School in Commerce, Principal Jose Franco says the dual-language program was discontinued because the school struggled to find qualified bilingual teachers. The program, which predates Franco, also struggled to maintain a 50-50 balance of English speakers and English learners.
Ramirez, of the Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School, remembers the struggles. For three years, the school’s state assessments were so low that it made the federal watch list. But now it boasts API test scores of 880, surpassing the state goal. In 2010, it was recognized as a California Distinguished School.
Ramirez says many dual immersion programs are effective, but the state needs to do a better job providing oversight.
“There needs to be extra monitoring for these programs,” Ramirez said. “Momentum is building, and you want to make sure it’s being done right.”