Little Saigon school to provide instruction in English and Vietnamese

A public school in Little Saigon is set to become the first in California to provide instruction in both English and Vietnamese.

DeMille Elementary School's Vietnamese Dual-Language Immersion Academy opens Wednesday in the Westminster School District.

Familiarity with Vietnamese is not a prerequisite at DeMille, and registration is open to students both within and outside district boundaries.

The Midway City school will implement the program in two 24-student kindergarten classes, said Principal Shannon Villanueva, adding that one section is full and the other has room.

"The younger they are, the better they can adapt," said Huong Dang, the program's Vietnamese instructor. "Whether they learned English or Vietnamese at home, we're maintaining both languages in school. At a young age, they can still learn another language and maintain their first."

Students will spend half the day learning math, social studies and language arts in English, and the other half learning science, visual and performing arts and language arts in Vietnamese. The two kindergarten classes will use full school days for their lessons.

The students "are activating a part of their brains at this age that wasn't active before," said Renae Bryant, executive director of the school district's Office of Language Acquisition. "Decades of research show that it doesn't necessarily matter what language it is, as long as they're learning."

The program will enable some students to preserve their mother tongues and prove useful to others who live in Little Saigon — which primarily spans sections of Westminster, Garden Grove, Midway City and Fountain Valley — but don't know the language.

"In this area, you'll see a lot of Vietnamese signs, food and businesses when you walk outside your home," Dang said. "It's good to know the language so you can be involved in the community and have mutual understanding."

Anaheim resident Vicki Tran, who enrolled her son in DeMille's program, is bilingual but members of her household lean toward English.

"As time goes by, he's more reluctant to use Vietnamese," she said of her boy. "If he's in an environment where he needs to use it, and if he has more friends that speak it with him, it'll be easier for him to open up and learn. He'll excel, and I believe that."

Enrollment in the classes at this point is diverse, with Asian, Caucasian and Latino pupils, Bryant and Villanueva said.

About 42% of students enrolled at DeMille are of Asian descent, Villanueva said.

The benefits of multilingual education take awhile to take hold but are sustained in the long run, according to a study by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Students take "a long time to demonstrate academic proficiency in the second language," the study found.

But as students broaden their reading, writing and speaking skills in the second language, they "increasingly demonstrate their knowledge-base developed in their first language" and typically score at or above grade level in all subject areas of their first language.

DeMille plans to expand the dual-language program in the near future.

"We are fully committed to having two kindergarten and two first-grade classrooms the next year," Bryant said.

The intention is to have the program expand one grade level higher each year through sixth grade.

It wasn't easy to find learning materials.

The Westminster district worked with Cal State Fullerton's National Resource Center for Asian Languages to develop texts.

"With Vietnamese texts, there aren't that many that reflect the Vietnamese American experience," center Director Natalie Tran said. "When developing a text, we think about who the audience is and make sure that the content is culturally relevant and appropriate for that age group. We have experts in culture and language who review these texts."

The center will provide DeMille with the learning materials, train teachers and help measure the program's effectiveness.

"Knowing another language is not only beneficial in a global society, but it's beneficial to students' cognitive development and their ability to process information," Tran said. "There's definitely a need and heightened interest, not just in Orange County, but other states as well."

Dual-immersion programs are gaining popularity in Orange County, where they are offered in nine school districts, said Tracey Gaglio of the county Department of Education in Costa Mesa.

Spanish-English and Mandarin-English are the most popular, she said.

Public schools in only three other states — Oregon, Washington and Texas — offer similar instruction.

Gaglio said there are two main drivers.

"One is understanding how to be a global citizen, and the other is understanding who you are," Gaglio said. "A big part of this is heritage. Families want to have their students speak with their grandparents and keep that rich heritage alive."

alexandra.chan@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

Chan writes for Times Community News.

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