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Sibling Preference? By All Means!

The ACIE Newsletter, February 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

By Daunna Minnich, Parent, Palo Alto Unified School District, Palo Alto, CA


Immersion education is in such demand that most programs hold a lottery, and others rely on a first-come, first-served policy. Either method makes for winners and losers. People may grumble about the fairness of the selection method, but the issue of fairness can turn shrill when the number of openings is severely limited by sibling preference.

Sibling preference is hardly unique to immersion programs. School districts typically grant preference to siblings in neighborhood schools, charter schools, and alternative programs for the simple reason that keeping students and their families together is commonly viewed as desirable. Everyone benefits: students, parents, and the school.

Reasons to establish sibling preference in immersion schools

Lack of sibling preference fragments parent support and erodes commitment to immersion programs in a number of ways:

Parent involvement. Keeping siblings at the same school focuses parent energies on one school, one set of practices, one PTA, one school culture. Parents with children in separate schools sometimes must choose which event to attend or which school to contribute to in various ways.

Attrition. Immersion programs depend on long-term commitment to control attrition. Not keeping siblings together would be like divorce in a family, at times forcing parents to choose between children and schools. As the strain builds up, loyalty to the program declines, leading to attrition.
Drop-off and pick-up. Most schools in a district start and end the day at about the same time. Having children in different schools several miles apart creates stress and complications, especially if parents have to provide transportation. Inevitably, one child is late to school or left waiting to be picked up. It stresses both kids and parents, and the school does not appreciate it either. This pressure can also lead to attrition.

Library materials. Immersion programs struggle to build adequate libraries in the target language. Parents are more inclined to write a bigger check for the school’s library when they know siblings will benefit too. Similarly, parents are more likely to buy pricey foreign-language books for home use when they know a younger sibling will also use the books.

Parent time and support. Immersion programs depend on strong parent support—as language models (in English, and in some cases the target language), classroom helpers, advocates, and volunteers. The parents who give the most of themselves are the ones with children all attending the same school.

Fostering cultural goals. Immersion education is a family commitment. Immersion parents may take classes in the language their children are learning, and this helps parents bridge language and culture divides. Immersion families seek out opportunities to use the target language and learn about the culture, locally or even abroad. All efforts contribute to the cultural component of immersion education. By the examples parents set, children learn that language learning and cultural appreciation are not just school stuff, but important family values.

Sibling expectations. Younger siblings want to do what their older siblings do, and their expectations of school are based on their siblings’ experiences. When kindergartners bring home their homework and play their music cassettes, their preschool siblings start learning the immersion language, too (or resist it less if it is their first language). As the siblings get older, they practice their second language with each other.

In short, immersion is a family experience, a family commitment, and a family investment. Sibling preference keeps families together and promotes program stability, strength, and success.

Responding to challenges against sibling preference

Arguments against sibling preference rely on words such as equal opportunity, exclusion, and elitism. All these terms have to do with the concept of fairness. Debating the issue will only fan the fires and create community uproar that makes your immersion program look bad.

Tips for Immersion Parents:

  • Do not defend sibling preference. You will be viewed as "part of the problem." Instead, explain only that sibling preference is district policy. Encourage applicants to call the principal. Let him/her take the heat.
  • Sympathize with aspiring applicants and let them know how much you chewed your fingernails over getting into the program, too. Give them hope by speaking of families who were wait-listed and got in.
  • Turn dismay, disappointment, or anger into advocacy. Offer to join with hopeful parents to advocate with the district administration and school board to enlarge the program.

Tips for Immersion Administrators:

  • The annual selection process is old hat to you, but it’s new to kindergarten parents. Be patient and sympathetic as you explain the policy. Inform parents about wait lists and encourage them not to give up hope. Kindness on your part can keep their frustration from escalating.
  • Angry parents will complain that preferences are not fair to all applicants. Your task is not to argue about fairness to applicants, but the importance of the policy to promote program stability.
  • If parents pressure you to change the policy, let them know it was approved by the superintendent and/or school board.
  • At information meetings held prior to registration, be clear about the selection system, the number of siblings, and the number of openings in each category. People may not like their chances, but if they know in advance, they won’t later feel as if they’ve been tricked. Angry losers are likely to complain to the superintendent and school board, contact the newspapers, and create divisiveness in the larger community.

What about other preferences?

Neighborhood preference. If the immersion program is a strand within a neighborhood school, reserving a small number of spaces for students who reside in the attendance area builds good will.

Children of immersion teachers. Teachers with children in the program will not only work for greater educational excellence, but they will also be less likely to seek jobs elsewhere.

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