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Dark side of school immersion programs

By Dana Rimington, Standard-Examiner Correspondent - | May 10, 2014
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The Chinese Immersion class at Uintah Elementary performed at the annual Chinese New Year celebration, hosted by The Weber State University Chinese Club and sponsored by university?s Study Abroad program, held in the ballroom on the campus of Weber State University, Friday, Feb. 4, 2011. KRISTIN HEINICHEN/Standard-Examiner

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Carlos Peraz teaches his third-grade class using only Spanish at Sand Springs Elementary School in layton in2009. The class is a Spanish immersion class. More and more schools are starting foreign language-immersion programs to prepare children for employment in a global economy. (NICHOlAS DRANEY/Standard-Examiner)

For the last eight years, 11 elementary schools of 60 in Davis School District, four in Weber School District, and two in Ogden School District have incorporated dual immersion programs with Spanish, Chinese, or French. To many, it is one of the highlights of the school’s education system, with experts from across the country who come to visit and see how it is done.

However, lurking behind the immersion grandeur are a significant number of frustrated parents. Issues of segregation, non-immersion students being pushed aside, non-immersion classes with too many learning disabilities weighing down teachers, and immersion programs getting treated to extra grant money.

Segregation issues

The biggest concern for Kristie Kearns, a fourth-grade parent at Morgan Elementary in Kaysville, is the division between immersion and non-immersion students. “This is the closest thing to segregation I’ve seen since the ’50s because at a normal school, when you volunteer in class or go on field trips, you get to know other moms and their kids, but at an immersion school, we can only get to know half the school,” said Kearns, who says it also extends to the kids because the immersion students and the rest don’t interact with one another during lunch or recess.

Angela Wilde, another parent of a fourth-grader at Morgan Elementary, has similar sentiments. “That’s the thing I have the hardest thing with. You work so hard to get kids to get along, and then we label them as French kids and are treated better because we throw more money at them and this is where segregation issues come up. Why can’t we make it so everybody can benefit,” asked Wilde.

The concerns are felt at other immersion schools as well. Ann Gardner, a parent at Eagle Bay Elementary in Farmington, says, “I feel like because the school’s emphasis is Spanish immersion, they really pride themselves in that, so the attention, focus, and resources are on that, so there is definitely a social division between the two, and a lot of times the kids in Spanish have a superiority complex and think they are somehow more elite than the non-immersion students.”

As a teacher at Morgan Elementary, Michelle Jacobsen has seen both sides, having taught in both immersion and non-immersion classes. Jacobsen says she has seen the segregation issue parents are concerned about, but is unsure how to help the issue.

“We cannot control it (as teachers). Our PTA has been working on that, but I really wish we could figure out a way to deal with the issue,” said Jacobsen. “Every Friday we invite every kid in and celebrate all the kids’ birthdays, but parents and neighborhoods are really the ones that ultimately have to work on the issue.”

At Uintah Elementary in Weber County, which has a Mandarin immersion program, the PTA has been working to overcome any perceptions of segregation.

“We do see this at our school, though I don’t know how much is perceived than is really there, but we’ve tried to implement things with classroom parties where we divide up the students from all the classes (immersion and non-immersion), field trips are taken together, and the Chinese New Year celebration includes everyone at the school, and the feedback I’ve had is very positive from both teachers and students,” said PTA co-president Jo Wright.

Rita Stevenson, Davis School District Elementary Supervisor over the Immersion Program, admits that with any program, there are going to be issues on one side or another, but the district has a firm stance against segregation complaints at immersion schools.

“Our immersion students are encouraged by their teachers to be inclusive of everyone, and all of our students are involved in the school’s activities,” said Stevenson. “We try to bend over backwards to make sure our students are not segregated as we do not want our schools to be a school within a school.”

Many parents want to know why districts in Top of Utah have chosen to include immersion at regular schools, rather than setting up a magnet program, where parents drive their students to a particular school that is set aside solely for immersion. “If they are sent to one school, there will be less tendency to segregate kids and it doesn’t impact our class problems,” said Wilde.

The district contends that if they implemented a magnet program for immersion, even more segregation issues would be involved.

“Most immersion programs in the state are not magnet schools, not that we wouldn’t be open to the idea, but we wanted to serve students living in a school’s boundaries,” said Stevenson. “Anytime you bring students in from other schools, there is a division, and we don’t want divisions. We want the students who are in immersion walking to school with non-immersion students, going to Cub Scouts with each other, and maintaining those friendships.”

Funding issues

Another concern for parents of non-immersion classes involves funding. Currently, each immersion school is given extra sums by the state to help fund the program, which goes toward books, supplies, salaries of the immersion teachers, and other curricular needs. “All the kids in the district are funded per head, so it is equal,” said Stevenson. “District and school funds in excess of what is normally allotted to every classroom are not used to support immersion classrooms.”

However, some parents see it from a different perspective. “When we have issues in Utah with quality education, with so many overcrowded schools, I would rather see the extra money from legislation used for that, not a second language,” said Kearns.

Class size and bottom-heavy classes

Some parents are crying foul when it comes to the number of students who end up in non-immersion classes and the lack of extra teacher assistants. Immersion classes are front-loaded with full classes in younger grades to accommodate for students that may drop out of the program, and non-immersion classes are back-loaded, meaning they have smaller class sizes to begin with because they receive any new move-ins who would be ineligible for immersion.

While parents of non-immersion classes reap the benefits of smaller class sizes in younger grades, there are other concerns, say parents, such as classes filled with higher numbers of kids with learning difficulties and a boy-to-girl ratio that is skewed.

Gardner’s son is in a class with 18 boys and six girls. “I feel like those girls are really isolated and how unfortunate if they don’t happen to be friends or get along,” said Gardner. Jacobsen is in a similar situation with only a few girls and a large number of boys in the class, which does change the dynamics a bit,she says.

Regarding the issue of having more kids in non-immersion classes with extra learning needs, one parent says, “Usually you can spread out the really bright kids and ones who need help among four classes, but with only two classes of non-immersion, they get clumped together and one teacher can’t help all of those needs,” said Jill Puffer, who has a first and sixth grader at Morgan Elementary in the non-immersion program.

Jacobsen is dealing with the same issue in her first-grade class at Morgan Elementary. “My class has been bottom-heavy this year with kids that have struggled, and even with a smaller class, it’s a challenge. In an immersion class, very few struggle and can handle extra assignments and reading,” said Jacobsen, who taught an immersion class for several years before transferring back to a non-immersion one this year.

Davis School District says classes that have extra students with additional needs doesn’t have anything to do with the immersion program, but in bulges that occur naturally at schools. “Those imbalances happen at any school, at any grade level, and we can’t predict what kids come in, so there may be a disproportion of children that qualify for special education, and some schools have bulges that need to be addressed, such as the one Morgan Elementary had this year (in first grade).

The districts are also quick to clarify that their immersion programs are intended for anyone who is interested and prescreening is not part of the application process. A lottery system is in place to determine who gets in, with preference first being given to the students that live in the school boundaries.

Difficulties immersion students face transitioning into junior high

Once kids are done with the elementary immersion program and go into junior high, it is a shock to some, as it was for one seventh grader transitioning from the Spanish immersion program at Sand Springs Elementary in Layton to Legacy Junior High.

“It was a shocker to have math taught in English, because none of the math vocabulary I had learned was in English, and I couldn’t look back at my notes, because they were all in Spanish,” said seventh-grader Maycee Barrett. It took her three terms to get caught up with her classmates, relying on help from her older sister.

Upon learning of the situation last year, Davis School District began following the state model where the immersion math switches in the fourth and fifth grades back to a majority of math being taught in English, and supported with the secondary language.

Is immersion an experimental program?

The fact that the program is still going through experimentation of sorts bothers some parents, and is why they choose to keep their students out of the immersion program.

“Why is it a crown jewel when it’s completely experimental, with no long-term studies,” asked Gardner. “It’s dangerous because it’s like putting blinders on. I’ve never been against the immersion program, I just think the implementation is crazy. Learning a language is great, but aren’t the basics more important like reading English or doing math really well?”

Weber School District doesn’t view the program as experimental though. “Obviously, we want to see what our success rate is and see what happens with our students, but it is not experimental in nature because there has been a lot of research behind dual language learning,” said Jane Ann Bitton, Weber School District Curriculum Director. “We are pleased that we brought his program into our district because it provides the option for students to be fluent in two languages and we’re impressed with the progress our students are making at this age, having achieved the expected benchmarks as they go through the gains each year in all academic areas.”

Immersion success stories

Davis School District also says they have been surprised by the success rates of their immersion students.

“They have exceeded our expectations,” said Stevenson. “Our first goal is making sure our students are successful academically, and looking at the scores of end of level testing, academically our students in immersion are scoring as well as the English-only students. Looking at their language proficiency, we have been dumbfounded at the level of proficiency our students are able to achieve at this young age.”

Wright has been impressed with the immersion program for her two elementary kids.

“It really stretches their capacity and everywhere they go, they are always looking to speak Mandarin with people in the community,” said Wright. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for anyone to have a second language, which is so standard around the world, I feel like we are so far behind.”

Future plans for the immersion programs in Davis School District include adding two new immersion programs at Odyssey Elementary with Spanish and Lincoln Elementary with French, while Weber and Ogden districts are preparing their elementary immersion students for transition into junior high school.

In Davis district, junior high immersion students are taught two classes in their secondary language – U.S. History and then an advanced language course. For high school, all three districts are working to put into place 3000-level classes taught by university professors.


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