Fighting for education, fighting for what’s right

I learned today that the difference between a politician and an elected official. The politician will do what he thinks people want him to do. An elected official will do what’s right based on all of the information available to her.

My husband and I decided just over a year ago to step out on a limb, take a leap of faith, and signed our 5 year old son up for a brand new Spanish Immersion program in our public school district. It started with an informational meeting and moved on to me doing research because that is what I always do when presented with a choice.

The research was compelling. It was compelling enough that we decided to pay for the full-day kindergarten that was required and commit to driving him to and from school every day since the program was not available at our neighborhood school. We were in.

We knew it was a risk. We knew it was not likely to be perfect. It was the first year of a new program to the district. We were told to trust. We were told to commit. We were told that we were in it together. We believed.

On the day we had to register, I arrived at the district office at 4:30am to ensure my son would get in. Crazy. It is a first come, first serve system. The only requirement for the students were: 1) being the right age for kindergarten and 2) having crazy committed enough parents to stand in line at an ungodly hour to ensure his slot in Spanish Immersion.

The year has gone by with some bumps in the road, some frustrations, and many celebrations.

Then the bottom dropped out.

We received an email from the deputy superintendent (two and a half weeks ago now) that the School Board was announcing that they will be considering whether or not to continue the Spanish Immersion program at the School Board meeting on June 7, just a week and half later.

What?!?

Parents scrambled, then came together. I can’t tell you how well we have gotten to know one another over this short time. We were also fortunate enough to combine our efforts with the other immersion school’s parents. We prepared a thorough presentation for the meeting. We wrote letters to the School Board. We countered the district’s report about cost, we reminded the district that they asked for our commitment while promising theirs, we reached out to third party immersion experts, we did everything we thought we could.

The vote came. It went in our favor.

Now, a week later, we are looking at an emergency Board Meeting scheduled for Wednesday, June 16. Spanish Immersion is the only topic. The agenda clearly states that Board Action will be taken. What does that mean? I don’t know for sure. I can’t help but think a re-vote.

After we were clearly told that the decision had been made, they were moving on, offers to new bilingual teachers were being made.

After we were told that the district’s numbers had been off and that incremental costs were pennies.

After we were told to “trust the system.”

Why is this coming up again? One word: politics.

We do not need politicians right now, we need leaders. So I ask the School Board to step up and be a leader for your community. Do your research. Do your due diligence. Make the right choice for children.

Want to see some letters from people that have been working in the field of dual language immersion for decades? (Note: I have taken out my city information, but are otherwise unedited.)

“To the — School Committee:

Last year, you embraced a Spanish Immersion program for all the right reasons.  It enriches the educational experience and cultural perspective of the mainstream children who participate and sends an important message to speakers of minority languages that their language and culture are valuable.  It responds to President Obama’s call for every American child to be bilingual.  So, immersion education is in the interest of the nation, the community, and the children fortunate enough to have access to this forward-looking program.

Early immersion is also cost effective.  As you know, young children have special mental equipment for learning languages; high school students do not.  It is much more costly (and less successful) to make students wait till middle or high school for the opportunity to learn languages. On the other hand, language learning takes effort, even for the kindergartener—and above all, it takes consistency and continuity.

As a linguist and life-long student of children learning more than one language, I applaud the school system for establishing the program, but hope you will also have the determination to continue it.

I am alarmed to hear that you would consider cutting it after only one year.  We realize that budgets are tight everywhere.  But Miami’s experience with immersion schools demonstrates that they do not have to cost more than the non-immersion schooling they replace. However, they do take more organizational effort.  They are born of the strong commitment to providing the best education possible for our children.  That is an intangible without a price tag—one simply cannot buy committed parents, teachers, and administrators.  It is important not to squander them when you have them.

I urge you to maintain the current Spanish Immersion programs, and work with the parents and administrators to keep them on a par with other programs offered—not more privileged, but not less.

Sincerely,

Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D.
Research Associate, Linguistics and Communication Disorders
Author, Raising a Bilingual Child (Random House, 2008)
Major Contributor, Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children (Multilingual Matters, 2002).”

***

Dear — –:

Thank you for writing to me. I am so sorry to say that I am working under
quite demanding work deadlines and my time is further terribly committed
with travel to give talks. Thus, I am so sorry but I simply cannot devote
the time that such a formal letter would require.

At the same time, even a casual perusal of the research articles available
on my web page indicate that EARLY exposure to bilingual education is
vital and fundamentally most optimal for the developing child. We have
known for a long time that only early bilingual exposure provides children
with quite extraordinary COGNITIVE benefits. Add that my research over the
past 20 years has provided unequivocal evidence that early AND
simultaneous exposure to two languages from a young age in life provides
children with remarkable READING benefits (reading advantages) and that
these benefits/advantages are life-long. Thus, in addition to the positive
SOCIAL benefits of promoting open and inclusive values of
multiculturalism, early bilingual language exposure provides truly
outstanding EDUCATIONAL benefits — indeed, just those benefits that form
the very heart of the American educational system and its values involving
the advancement of children’s reading success and higher cognitive skills
(e.g., learning, reasoning, problem solving). One of the most remarkable
findings was that early and simultaneous bilingual language exposure is so
powerfully beneficial that it can even ameliorate the well known
deleterious efforts of literacy impoverishment in children from low
socio-economic homes. Please see my article attached for further
elaboration of this finding. Note that all of these studies were conducted
with children in Spanish – English bilingual programs in the United
States.

I wish you much success in convincing your school not to cut the
invaluable early Spanish immersion program. Rather than spending
spectacular amounts of money on fancy equipment, nature gave us the
easiest way to boost human cognition: just expose young children early in
life to two languages. How cost efficient can USA education get than
this?!

Best wishes,
Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto
Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology,
University of Toronto Scarborough
Professor: Program in Neuroscience, University of Toronto, St. George
Director & Senior Scientist: “Genes, Mind & fNIRS Brain Imaging Laboratory
for Language, Bilingualism, and Child Development”
RESEARCH WEB PAGE: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~petitto/
LABORATORY WEB PAGE: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~petitto/lab/index.html

***

June 12, 2010

School Board Members
—- School Board

Distinguished Board Members:

I wish I could have come up to speak with you this evening but I just returned from a 10-day trip to Oregon and need to be at home right now.  I am writing to support the continuation of a Spanish/English immersion program in your school district.  I have been working with immersion programs for the past 25 years and am considered one of the leading experts on two-way immersion.  I have many publications on this topic, including books, chapters and journal articles. In addition, my research was used to define two-way immersion programs and I was part of the team that determined what program characteristics were necessary for programs to receive federal funding.  I provide this background so that you understand that I am a highly knowledgeable researcher in this field.

In 1994, I served on two task forces, one parent/community and one district, to discuss developing a Spanish/English two-way immersion program in the Palo Alto USD in California, and then later.  The two-way immersion program in Palo Alto is in its 12th year now and is very successful and there is considerable community and parent support for them.  In my own research with other schools, I have found that two-way programs promote high levels of bilingualism and biliteracy, at no cost to the home language of English speakers, either in language proficiency or in achievement.  These results are consistent with findings from other studies as well.   I have served as the evaluator for many Spanish immersion programs around California and in other states as well.  In my evaluations of these quality programs, I have found that the students score high in English, and higher than their peers in the same school district.  I have no doubt that these findings could be replicated in your schools as well since you have several programs nearby that you could collaborate with and you have the University of Oregon that has some strong faculty members who could assist you.  In addition, in December I’ll be retiring from San Jose State University and moving to Grants Pass, and can be available for some support.

The Center for Applied Linguistics has a directory of the two-way immersion programs in the country (http://www.cal.org/twi/directory).  [By the way, there are currently at least 330 programs in public schools in 25 states, and there are about 200 programs in California.]  These programs have thrived, with students learning in both languages and continuing to perform well in tests of achievement in English.

It is important to point out that two-way immersion programs cost no more than other classrooms on a day-to-day basis.  They require a teacher — with the same teacher-to-student ratio — and classroom materials.  The only additional costs are start-up costs in training the teachers, in developing the curriculum, and in purchasing and developing the classroom materials.

In addition, two-way programs are standards-based; thus, the curriculum in Spanish is developed to support the state and local curriculum.  I’m sure that neighboring programs would provide considerable assistance to your program in curriculum development, and that any local district standards could be easily mapped onto the curriculum requirements.

I would strongly urge you to continue to establish the immersion programs in the district.

If you would like additional information, I would be more than happy to speak with you by phone or email.  I intend to be up in your area again next month and would be happy to come and answer any questions you might have.

Sincerely,

Kathryn J. Lindholm-Leary, Ph.D.
Professor
San José State University
Child and Adolescent Development
College of Education
One Washington Square, San José, CA  95192-0075
408-242-9542
klindholmleary@mac.com

***

Language immersion programs are not new. Most of the other public school districts that surround us have successful programs. I have even been in touch with some. For most, it is a ridiculous choice to even look at cutting a successful Spanish Immersion program after one year. Most people involved with language immersion can’t even understand it.

I have been surprised more than I can count over the last several weeks. I can only hope that we are not surprised on Wednesday.

Update: Spanish Immersion was suspended. No new information had been presented to change the school board’s mind, except for angry, misinformed parents screamed loud enough to get their way. Unfortunately, the district saved no money through this decision. Nothing was gained. The school board and administration just lost the respect and trust of the community and the most innovative educational opportunity this district has seen in years. Not to mention what our children lost. Language immersion is a SOLUTION in a budget crisis, not a problem.

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