Language immersion programs gain fans
Arizona Republic
Jan. 2, 2009


Parents throughout the Valley are embracing language-immersion programs.

Three Valley elementary schools have seen increased enrollment because of the popularity of their Spanish-immersion programs, which help students learn a foreign language and help districts earn extra income.

Pueblo Elementary School in the Scottsdale Unified School District saw enrollment in its program jump from 50 to 150 students in its second year.

"I have parents with a 1-year-old wanting to sign up for it in five more years," said Pueblo Principal Terri Kellen.

Peoria Unified School District started a pilot program this year at Santa Fe Elementary School.

Both programs were modeled after the immersion program at Desert Willow Elementary School in the Cave Creek Unified School District.

Parents flock to the immersion programs because they're looking for a magnet concept at a public school, according to former Desert Willow Principal Jana Miller.

"Parents are being selective, they want specific things for their kids and this just provides another thing for parents who are looking for what other schools have to offer," Miller said.

Desert Willow started its program in 2002 with 54 students in two first-grade classes. The school now has about 325 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Miller said the school used to have to "beg, borrow and steal" to get students enrolled in the immersion program. Now the school, which last year won a $512,000 federal grant for the program, has three different wait lists: for Desert Willow students, Cave Creek students, and out-of-district students.

Now more than ever, school districts are developing specialty programs for their elementary schools.

Part of the reason for the competition to keep and attract students stems from the state's enrollment payments of about $5,000 per student for the school year. The payments are schools' largest source of funding.

Parents like having choices and enjoy the immersion concept, according to Eric Kurland, head of the Scottsdale Education Association and a parent of a Pueblo immersion student.

"They see a window of opportunity for their child to have a leg up in the global economy," said Kurland, who enrolled his daughter at Pueblo even though it wasn't her neighborhood school.

At Pueblo, the program is offered to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students, who learn all of their math and science in Spanish. Class sizes are capped at 25 students, and the children quickly pick up the language, according to Mayitza Frederick, a Pueblo Elementary School foreign-language-immersion kindergarten teacher.

"It's very easy for them," Frederick said. "I am absolutely ecstatic when I see them."

The school requires parents to sign a commitment letter, stating that they understand the responsibilities of the program. Kellen said that she wants parents committed for six to seven years.

Parent Pam Kirby enrolled her daughter, Alex, at Pueblo and said her first-grader has blossomed in the program. Alex has even helped her mother learn Spanish, teaching her words and correcting her pronunciation.

The immersion programs are not about teaching students Spanish, supporters said. A second language forces students to use different parts of their brain and think critically.

"These kids are problem-solvers, excellent thinkers, good listeners, very versed in their own language," Miller said. "There are lots of side benefits that are a byproduct of kids learning a second language."

Kellen said the program could be spread to other schools in Scottsdale, possibly for Chinese or French.

"The language would be beneficial no matter what," Kellen said. "It's what the children are doing with the language on a daily basis that makes a bigger difference."