Why I Chose A Bilingual Program

-posted by Meghan

Last year my kids, Molly & Jacob, were in their last year at preschool.  Which means we needed to start thinking about Kindergarten.  Which in L.A. is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. To read a hilarious and accurate description of what it’s like to find a school here, you’ve got to check out The Scandalously Informal Guide to the LAUSD by Sandra Tsing Loh.  She does a much better job of explaining this insane decision making process, in a much funnier way, than I ever could!

What I want to get to, is that I toured over 15 schools.  I needed to find one perfect school that fit both of my very different kids – I couldn’t imagine placing them in different schools.  And in my research, I discovered a growing trend in education in our city (and I hope, across the country) – the rise of the dual language immersion program.  It was kind of love at first sight, reinforced by my mother’s enthusiastic response (Three Cheers for Bilingual Education)  and ensuing barrage of research backing up how wonderful this education is for kids.

So, I found three schools that fit my new criteria: dual language program (preferably in Spanish, as that’s the most useful second language you can have living in Southern California) that was near enough to drive to. Two schools I liked on paper.  Visited one, liked it, was happy with that as a back up.  But it didn’t feel quite right.  Then I visited the last school.  It was launching a new program – we’d be the pilot class.  It was in a gentrified neighborhood that was in transition – still a Title One school, but the families who had made up this working class neighborhood for years could no longer afford to live there.  Affluent families moving into the neighborhood were sending their kids to private or charter schools.  Enrollment had dropped from a peak of 1200 to a low the past year of 300.  Not too promising.  Then I visited.

The skies parted and angels sang – I had found the school for my kids.  They practice art based learning.  The school has a huge solar powered community garden.  And the dual language program was being started to serve the needs of the community – a desire for this kind of schooling by the new neighborhood demographic, and a need for English instruction from the old neighborhood demographic.  I loved the school philosophy, parent associations, campus and teachers.  I loved the idea of my kids acquiring a second language (for all these reasons).  I love supporting public schools!  This was it.

We spent a summer in excitement and wonder – we had Kindergartners! They were going to learn another language!  Then on the first day of school it hit me – I was sending my kids to a school where they didn’t speak the language.  At all.  They were just going to be plopped into a classroom (they were in the Spanish homeroom, so their very first day of school began with 3 hours of only Spanish language instruction) where no one would say a single thing they understood for the first half of the day.  What was I thinking?  How would they survive?
Brilliantly!  These dual language teachers know what they’re doing!  On the second day of school, I asked the kids if they were having trouble figuring out what Sr. Diaz was saying.  “No Mommy,” Molly said patiently.  “He uses a lot of hand motions, and we look at that, and at his face, and we do what he is telling us.”  The very next day she came home so excited.  “Mommy, how do you say yellow in Spanish?”  I told her I didn’t know.  She said, “It’s quecoloreseste!”  Hunh?  “How did you learn that?” I marveled.  “Well, Sr. Diaz held up a yellow crayon and said ‘Que color es este’, so I know that means yellow!”  While I asked my phone how to say yellow (it’s amarillo!), I pondered this, and then figured out what had happened.   Molly figured it out too, the next day at school, and we’ve been playing that game ever since, where one of the kids points to something and asks “Que color es este?” and we see who can yell out the right answer first.  It’s fun, because I get to play alongside them, and I assure you, I’m the one at a disadvantage.  But I digress…

The really cool thing I took away from this first week of school, and those examples, is that the kids aren’t learning another language.  They’re acquiring it.  It’s just seeping into their systems, the way English did, and one day (soon!) they’ll just be speaking it as fluently as they do English.  I am trying to learn it alongside them, slowly, from them, their teacher, and other parents.  I’m painstakingly translating each word, fumbling over tense, agreement and sentence construction.  I’m also inhibited, as I know I don’t know what I’m saying.  The kid are fluid, uninhibited, and having fun playing with the language and meaning.  It’s amazing.  It’s also absolutely astonishing how much they’ve learned in 2 1/2 short months.

The other huge benefit I’m seeing already is in me.  I am so uncomfortable sometimes when I drop the kids off or go in to volunteer in the classroom.  The teacher will only speak Spanish to me in front of the kids – and it’s been an eye opening experience for me to see (on a tiny scale) the frustration you feel when you don’t speak the language.  The way you shut down and just smile and nod to get along, with out knowing what’s going on.  The way you feel left out and outside when you can’t participate in the conversation.  I always had compassion for immigrants, now in the smallest and most insignificant way, I’ve developed empathy, and I think it makes me a better person.  I know that learning, no acquiring, a second language, and interacting with a whole new community of kids and parents is making the kids better citizens of the world.

And that’s why I chose, and now I love, dual language immersion programs.

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