Irvine grapples with how to launch language immersion program

Though there are 72 languages spoken in the district, Irvine Unified lags behind others in language programs

Most days find Heather King describing the latest hot property in English and Spanish.

The Irvine real estate agent said a second language is essential in today's global economy.

King is among a growing share of Irvine parents now pushing the Irvine Unified School District to launch an immersion program to instruct schoolchildren in English and Spanish.

She recently professed surprise upon hearing that Irvine Unified, a district where 72 languages are spoken, lags behind neighboring districts in Orange County where immersion programs are already in place.

About 132 people have signed a petition that King posted online in February. One signer said she pulled a child from an Irvine elementary school in favor of a Spanish immersion program in Lake Forest. And Anita Casavantes Bradford, who recently joined the faculty at UC Irvine, said she was reluctant to relocate from San Diego to Irvine because the public schools lack an immersion program.

"Why would you not teach children in more than one language?" Bradford said. She wonders whether the district simply doesn't value dual-language education.

But district officials contend that teaching students in two languages is no small task. The rapidly growing district is grappling with multiple new initiatives and where to put an estimated 16,000 new students who are expected to enroll over the next nine years.

Cassie Parham, the district's assistant superintendent for education services, said she embraces the idea of an immersion program that lives up to the district's high standards. But, 20 years of experience in education tell her that many pieces of the puzzle would need to fall into place for such a program to succeed.

Where would the immersion program be housed? Could the district find enough high-quality bilingual teachers? Are a sufficient number of families interested to keep such a program going?

An immersion program, by its very nature, demands commitment.

Students would begin in kindergarten or first grade, when their minds are most receptive, according to a report by district staff. Ideally, classes would be equally split between children fluent in English and those learning the language. Research shows that at least 30 students would need to enroll for the program to be a success.

Initially, teachers would deliver lessons in English about 10% of the time and 90% of the time in another language. By the time students reached fifth or sixth grade, that gap would close and children would be learning in both languages about equally.

"They become good problem-solvers because they have to decode a second language as they're learning," King explained.

But if participants drop out early, they could be behind their peers because immersion course work is paced slightly slower due to the inherent difficulty of teaching a language along with the particular subject matter. If they persist, research shows, immersion program students outperform their peers on standardized tests in both languages and exhibit more cultural consciousness.

Parham also described a historic lack of interest among parents. Surveys to Spanish-speaking parents in 2005, 2006 and 2007 drummed up little interest. In 2008 and again in 2009, the district failed to secure funding for Korean- or Mandarin-language programs after applying for federal grants.

The district must also figure out how to pay for the program.

One year could cost $387,500, according to a rough estimate provided by the district. The money would pay for teachers, curriculum development, professional learning, equipment and instructional materials.

But Bradford, the UCI professor, isn't convinced the hurdles are insurmountable.

"If they thought it was valuable, they would find a way," Bradford said. "This is a district with resources."

Nicole Knight Shine writes for Times Community News.

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