Plunging Into Languages : Culver City School Is First in State Devoted Totally to Spanish, Japanese Immersion

Share via

Culver City’s newest school has a fresh coat of paint, a red-and-blue playground set--and a new mission.

Starting Monday, elementary school students in Culver City’s Japanese and Spanish language immersion programs will study together at the El Marino Language School. School officials say the pairing of the two K-5 programs, taught at separate locations last year, marks the first time a public school in California has been devoted entirely to multi-language immersion.

“We are breaking new ground with this school,” said Principal Steve Martinez.

Martinez was formerly principal of Farragut Elementary, where he oversaw the launch of the Japanese immersion program three years ago. He said parents from the Westside, South Bay and San Fernando Valley have inquired about enrolling their children at the revamped El Marino, which closed in 1981 because of low enrollment and was later leased to private schools.


“We are taking dramatic new steps, creating a new program the whole country can take a look at in terms of challenging students,” he said.

In 1971, the Culver City school district created a Spanish language track for elementary school students, the first district in the United States to do so. Until this year, the Spanish immersion program was taught at El Rincon Elementary. The 400 immersion students shared the campus with 200 non-immersion students.

Because of overcrowding at the school, district officials decided to reopen El Marino and move the Spanish immersion program there, designating the school as a foreign language magnet.

During the summer, parents and community members have helped refurbish the school. The district set aside $700,000 to upgrade the campus, said James Crawford, assistant superintendent of business services.

About 420 students will be enrolled in El Marino’s Spanish immersion program, 75 in the Japanese language program. The core curriculum, Martinez said, will be taught in Japanese and Spanish.

In the Culver City district, immersion students receive all their instruction in the foreign language. In kindergarten and first grade, only 10% of the instruction is in English. In second grade, the students spend an hour on English language arts, and English instruction increases gradually each year. By fifth grade, nearly half their school day is spent reading and writing in English.


The immersion track extends to the middle school and high school level. This year, for the first time, about 100 immersion students at Culver City Middle School will learn science in Spanish. Before, students who continued with the Spanish immersion studied only social science and literature in Spanish.

For its new combined K-5 immersion site at El Marino, the school district hired three Spanish teachers and one Japanese teacher, for a total of 11 Spanish teachers and three Japanese teachers. In the Spanish program, there will be three kindergarten classes, two first- and second-grade classes, a third- and fourth-grade combination, and single third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes.

The Japanese program, which has been federally funded since it was started in 1991, will include a kindergarten class, a first-grade class, and a combined second- and third-grade class.

The two programs will remain essentially the same, said Martinez, but will benefit by being in the same building. “The teachers can share methodologies and language acquisition techniques,” he said.

When it was announced last year, the move to El Marino drew criticism from parents. The critics feared that some parents, who wanted to keep their children at Farragut because it was their neighborhood school, would withdraw their children from the Japanese track, weakening the program.

School officials say that so far one family has done so, withdrawing two Japanese-track students.


Martinez said the school district is committed to supporting the Japanese program once the federal funding runs out. If finances dwindle, however, school officials say they will take cost-saving steps, such as further combining grades.

Despite such worries, many parents express support for the new school.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea, to pull all the resources together,” said Shelly Shapiro, a parent of a fifth-grade Spanish immersion student. “I’m happy my daughter is bilingual; I’ve seen how useful it is. She does the interpreting for us.”