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Language Immersion Is for All Students

Editor's Note: Camilla Modesitt, advancement director at Denver Language School, shares the reasons why it is important to make language-immersion programs available to all students.

By Guest Blogger Camilla Modesitt

Choice in education is relatively new, born from the intent of strengthening the educational market and creating greater student engagement. These days, there seem to be as many school choice models as there are learners: Montessori, Waldorf, Classical, Reggio Emilia, Performing Arts, STEM—the list is a mile long. To become a school of choice requires (understandably) a rigorous vetting and application process. Opening a school is a high-stakes operation dealing in an incredibly valuable currency.

Some choice models—like STEM—are an easy sell. The data doesn't lie—students in the U.S. are falling behind in math and science, while women and minorities aren't entering the profession. Everyone agrees we need to do better by our children, and STEM seems to offer a solution. The marketing and packaging of the issues related to STEM and the proffered solutions are clean and easy to digest.

language_immersion_for_all.pngAlternatively, some choices are not as easy to sell to authorizers, school districts, and funders. How do you explain that students won't be formally taught English until 3rd grade but will ultimately excel in literacy? Or that they will always do math in the target language (never in English) and yet will have some of the highest math scores in their district? As the founder of a language-immersion charter school, I can personally attest that this model is not an easy sell.

In today's educational landscape, I understand why language immersion is difficult for educators and educational organizations to grasp. Pedagogy around language acquisition has changed considerably from 30 years ago, yet massive amounts of misinformation remain. Some of the things I've heard over the years include:

  • The human brain can't learn two languages at once.
  • Students who learn two languages from a young age will never be proficient in either language.
  • Language-immersion education isn't for everyone (implying that not every child is capable of learning a second language).

  • Language-immersion education requires additional family resources.

  • There is no proven benefit to learning a second language since everyone speaks English.

However, science and research around language immersion and its impact on the human brain now tell us that:

  • There is no better language learner than a young child.

  • Language immersion is more than just learning a second language; it's building a better brain and developing cultural competency.

  • Language immersion does not require any additional family resources.

  • Students that learn a second language at a young age:

    • Perform better academically than their nonlanguage-learning peers.

    • Have better executive functioning skills, including problem-solving, critical thinking, listening, etc.

    • Are more compassionate and empathetic toward their peers.

What is clear is that while language immersion may be a difficult sell to authorizers and district administrators, parents understand the value. Almost all the public language-immersion schools I've spoken with have a wait list. Just take my school, Denver Language School (DLS), as an example. We are a K-8 total immersion charter in Colorado offering Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. This year, DLS was the number-one school of choice in the Denver district by a considerable margin and has the largest wait list of all K-5 and 6-8 schools in the district. For some perspective, DLS has 830 students enrolled, and 765 students applied through the school choice system. That number all but matches the enrollment one-to-one!

The demand is clear, and to meet it, we must ensure that all students can access these programs, not just those with the most resources. Nelson Flores, associate professor of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a powerful post about elite bilingualism. He addresses ways to dismantle this bias, including giving students in all ZIP codes an opportunity to attend a dual-language school. Indeed, we know that proximity to the home is one of the biggest influencers in school choice and that greater local access to dual-language programs would be a benefit for all students.

Turning people away no longer feels like an option. Our elected officials, departments of education, and foundations should be sitting up, taking notice, and providing opportunities for all students to have this type of education. We have the data, the waiting lists, and we know this educational model works for all kids. Let's do more together.

Connect with Camilla and Heather on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

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