In a Glendale public school classroom, the immigrant's daughter uses no English as she conjugates verbs and writes sentences about cats.
More than a decade after California voters eliminated most bilingual programs, first-grader Sofia Checchi is taught in Italian nearly all day — as she and her 20 classmates at Franklin Elementary School have been since kindergarten.
Yet in just a year, Sofia has jumped a grade level in reading English. In the view of her mother — an Italian immigrant — Sofia's achievement validates a growing body of research indicating that learning to read in students' primary languages helps them become more fluent in English.
The Glendale Unified School District has become one of the nation's leading laboratories for such dual-language immersion experiments, offering programs in Italian, German, Spanish, Armenian, Japanese and Korean. At Franklin, instruction is 90% in Italian and 10% in English in kindergarten and first grade, a proportion that will shift to 50-50 by fifth grade. Although Sofia is classified as an English-language learner, most of her classmates are native English speakers whose parents want them to learn Italian.
Growing in popularity, dual-language immersion programs are the new face of bilingual education —without the stigma. Though bilingual education was often perceived — and resented by some —as public handouts only for immigrant families, dual programs offer the chance to learn a second language to native-born American children as well.
"Bilingual education has basically become a dirty word, but dual-language programs seem to have this cachet that people are glomming onto," said Julie Sugarman of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. "They are successful for English-language learners. And white, middle-class parents want these programs to give their children an edge in the increasingly globalized world."
Sugarman estimated that dual-language immersion programs have grown in the last few years from a few hundred to 1,000 or more nationwide, with California and Texas leading the way. California had 224 programs in 100 school districts as of 2008 — a number that officials say has risen considerably in recent years. The majority of the programs are in elementary schools.
About 1.5 million students, or one-quarter of California's school-age population, are English-language learners. The vast majority are placed in English-only programs, an approach essentially mandated by Proposition 227 in 1998.
The voter-approved initiative, successfully pushed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, scrapped most bilingual programs and decreed that English learners should be taught "overwhelmingly in English." Parents may still request bilingual instruction in certain circumstances, but less than one-third of the state's English-language learners have done so, according to state data.
Yet a vast body of research indicates that Proposition 227's core assertion — that English immersion is more successful than bilingual education — is simply wrong, according to many education experts. State standardized test scores from 2003 to 2010 show that the gap between English learners and all students has widened, with their progress in English and language arts falling behind that of all other students.
In a 2008 review of more than 500 studies on English-language learners, Stanford University education professor Claude Goldenberg wrote that one major consistent finding was that learning to read in a child's first language boosts reading achievement in the second language.
"Local or state policies, such as in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, that block use of primary language … are simply not based on the best scientific evidence available," he wrote.
Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, a San Jose State University professor and language specialist, said the counterintuitive effect occurs because children are able to take reading skills learned in their first language — such as linking sounds to words — and apply them to their second. Meanwhile, she added, early bilingualism has been found to aid memory, problem-solving, decision-making and other brain functions.
So far, dual-language programs have not stirred the controversy that surrounded bilingual education.
Some school boards have rejected them because they lack the resources or remain skeptical of the results. Advocates of traditional bilingual programs, meanwhile, have hailed dual immersion for mixing English learners with native English speakers instead of isolating them in special classrooms.
Unz said he sees some value in the dual-language programs, although he dismissed most of the research showing their effectiveness. "They're probably beneficial for some students and not beneficial for others," he said.
He added that "affluent, middle-class, English-speaking families" are supporting them — a politically potent constituency that has helped spread their use.
Such families have flocked to Franklin, which was in danger of closing a few years ago until district officials decided to offer Italian, German and Spanish immersion programs. The school has grown from fewer than 300 students in 2007 to 530 projected for this fall. There are waiting lists, particularly for the Spanish program.
Diversity has increased, with the proportion of low-socioeconomic families falling from 77% to 53%, school officials say. Only two families — both Spanish-speaking — declined to select dual programs for their children this fall; they will be offered spots in all-English kindergartens at other district schools.
Meanwhile, a new group of "crazy involved parents," as one mother put it, has revitalized the PTA and started a foundation that raised $20,000 the first year for an after-school enrichment program offering art, yoga, science and music.
"It's been a huge turnaround," said Jennifer Freemon, whose daughter, Kyra, is in the first-grade Spanish-English class. "It's keeping good, strong families in public schools."
Freemon, a teacher, said it was "a little nerve-wracking" to see her daughter struggling with English while immersed in a 90% Spanish-language classroom. But she and her husband trust the research showing that children in dual-language classes usually lag a bit behind in English skills for the first few years, then tend to surpass their counterparts in English-only classes by fifth and sixth grade.
For her part, Kyra, 6, said she enjoys her lessons. Surrounded by all-Spanish maps and colorful charts of body parts, colors and other vocabulary, she smiled broadly and said: "It's really fun because your brain gets to work with two different languages and your tongue gets to do two different sounds."
Isaiah Coyotl, a sixth-grader in the Spanish-English program at Glendale's Edison Elementary School, is excelling — in both languages. The son of Mexican immigrants, he knew very little English when he began kindergarten at the school. His state standardized test scores in English improved from a basic level of 334 in third grade to an advanced level of 467 in fifth grade, based on a scale of 600 points.
Articulate and fluent in both languages, he said that strengthening his Spanish allows him to communicate with his family in Mexico — unlike many of his cousins here who have lost most of their home language.
"This is an amazing program and people should consider putting their children in it," he said. "It could help a lot of boys and girls get better jobs, speak two languages and help people in need."