Changing Parental Concerns
The ACIE Newsletter, May 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3
By Kathy and John Bredesen, Immersion
Adams Spanish Immersion School, St. Paul, MN (Sept. 1993 - April 1997, Jan. 1999 to present)
& Puesta del Sol Spanish Immersion School, Bellevue, WA (April 1997 - Jan. 1999)
When the catalog of public school choices in St. Paul, Minnesota arrives at each residence, one of the options presented to parents is the Spanish Immersion Elementary Magnet School. This school provides students with the unique opportunity to learn the same curriculum as is offered to other St. Paul elementary school students with the additional benefit of learning it in Spanish. For the vast majority of students at this elementary school, this means learning in a language that is not their first language. As parents of two children who currently attend the Spanish immersion school, we find that the decision to pursue this opportunity presents challenges and concerns that are both expected and unexpected at each grade level.
Based on informal conversations with other immersion parents from two different elementary Spanish immersion schools over a period of five years (one, Adams, in St. Paul, MN and the other, Puesta del Sol, in Bellevue, WA), we have found that the decision to pursue an immersion education often involves one or more of three main reasons:
Although parents may choose to enroll their children in an immersion school because of their desire for a multilingual and multicultural learning experience, they also arrive with a number of concerns. Even before the first day of school, many parents identify concerns regarding their decision to pursue immersion education. Despite the many benefits, parents may challenge learning coordinators or school representatives with questions regarding a child's ability to handle learning in another language. Most parents I have talked with wonder if their child has the resourcefulness and patience to attend school all day in a language that s/he is in the process of learning.
At the forefront of the minds of kindergarten parents are questions regarding whether their child will be able to make the leap to school, let alone the leap to learning in another language. Kindergarten is a big step for most five and six-year-olds and the challenge of constant exposure to a new language is an understandable concern. This concern persists throughout the first-grade year, when the child attends school all day long. New immersion parents also express a concern about how they can become involved in their child's schooling when they themselves don't understand the language. Many parents perceive volunteering in the classroom as a challenge.
The longevity of the program is another concern for parents. They wonder about the district's commitment to continuing with an immersion program. In Bellevue, WA, the district asks parents to sign a document indicating their commitment to the immersion program. Interestingly, a similar document that would demonstrate district-level commitment to the program does not exist. This concern was raised by two dozen parents before the Bellevue school board in March of 1998. Although a verbal commitment was given by the school board, a written statement of commitment still does not exist. Finally, many parents express concerns regarding the qualifications of the immersion teachers. For example, they question whether teachers' language skills are sufficient and appropriate for this school context.
As the child moves toward their mid-elementary years (Gr. 2-3), some parent concerns remain consistent, while new ones take shape. New concerns might include questions such as, Is the child learning the basic skills that a second or third grader should have? Since most standardized testing for a district is done in English, how will the child fare when compared with non-immersion peers? Another concern that parents sometimes voice has to do with the teacher and teacher access to appropriate materials. Since the notion of immersion education is still relatively new, schools ask many teachers to translate existing educational materials from English into the immersion language. This is a significant undertaking both in terms of time and energy for teachers. How does this additional challenge affect the teacher's contact with the students? Do students have access to current materials or do teachers become dependent upon older materials due to time constraints imposed by translation?
The concern regarding materials and use of teacher time is also prevalent for parents of children in the later elementary years (Gr. 4-6). As the child nears middle school or junior high, many parents express concern regarding their child's ability to make the transition to junior high course work (much of which is in English). Parents again wonder whether their child is adequately prepared to perform on standardized tests that are given in English - which is not their child's "school" or "learning" language. At this stage parents are challenged to find new ways to be supportive of their child's learning, since by now most students are quite proficient in the immersion language and are far more comfortable with the language than are most parents.
In spite of all the above-mentioned concerns, most parents are well aware of the extraordinary gift an immersion program provides for each student. For students to be able to leave elementary school academically prepared for junior high and functionally proficient in two languages is a great achievement and a strong endorsement of both the immersion philosophy and immersion teachers. Most of the parents contacted for this article were quick to point out that even with their concerns, they feel strongly that the immersion education their child is receiving is exceptional and worth any possible drawbacks. For us personally, there are few things so amazing as observing and listening to our fifth grader carry on a conversation with great ease and fluency in Spanish or to hear our kindergarten child count to one hundred or sing one song after another in Spanish.