Speaking the Language

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2010, Vol. 14, No. 1

By Heather K. Olson Beal, Assistant Professor, Stephen F. Austin State University, Department of Secondary Education & Educational Leadership, Nacogdoches, TX

South Boulevard Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet (FLAIM) is a magnet elementary school located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—a state with a rich history of second language education that originally emerged to preserve and revive Cajun French culture and language. South Boulevard is the only public immersion program in the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP) system—one of the 100 largest urban districts in the U.S.

The immersion program at South Boulevard has played a unique role in efforts to desegregate EBRP schools. When South Boulevard originally opened in 1949, it was an all White school, but became an all Black1 or “Negro” school in 1959. By 1980, South Boulevard’s student population was 98% Black. The immersion program was explicitly created (in conjunction with other magnet programs) by federal court order in 1996 in an attempt to address long-standing racial segregation in EBRP. Policymakers hoped that magnet programs would entice non-Black parents who had left the public system for private or suburban schools to return to public schools. Between 1996 and 2007, racial quotas were used to determine admission; family income quotas are currently in use. In 2001, South Boulevard was 80% Black and 20% non-Black. In 2007, its student body was 58% Black, 42% non-Black with 59% of the students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program. Thus, South Boulevard is significantly more integrated than the parish as a whole (85% Black, 15% non-Black).

Program Features

South Boulevard uses a partial immersion program model. Students spend 60 percent of their instructional time in either French or Spanish. There are two classes per grade (one French immersion, one Spanish immersion) that share three teachers: one French, one Spanish, and one English Language Arts (ELA). The Spanish and French classes are taught by Foreign Associate Teachers (FATs)—native-speaking teachers recruited from their native countries by the state Department of Education to teach in one of Louisiana’s immersion programs. Some FATs obtain permanent resident status or marry U.S. citizens—thereby allowing them to continue teaching at South Boulevard while some return to their native countries after a year or two. South Boulevard typically replaces two to three (out of twelve total) immersion teachers each year. There is a significant amount of mentoring that occurs between the more established and the newly-arrived teachers—both in terms of practical things like transportation and living arrangements and instructional assistance.

Students learn all of their math, science, and social studies in the target language. The ELA teacher comes into the immersion classroom (considered the homeroom classroom) for ninety minutes a day. Initial literacy instruction occurs in English. In addition to their regular subject classes, South Boulevard students have a 30-minute music lesson once or twice a
week. Fourth and fifth graders can participate in a string instruments program—a teacher comes to the school twice a week for 45-minute lessons in violin, viola, cello, or bass.

Key Instructional Strategies

South Boulevard teachers integrate content and language instruction based on the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum that is used at all EBRP schools. Spanish immersion teachers use Spanish versions of state-adopted textbooks. These texts are not available in French, so the French teachers have to create their own materials or adapt previously-made materials to fit the Comprehensive Curriculum.

Teachers speak the target language freely and fluently. They scaffold or shelter the language to make it comprehensible to the students. They use repetition, body language, gestures, facial expressions, and visuals to communicate unfamiliar content. They engage in linguistic modeling and recast errors made by students with correct target-language utterances. Teachers acknowledge student responses in English, but respond in the target language and encourage the student to follow suit. Expectations are raised as the students get older; students are eventually required to read and write in the target language as well. Small class sizes (avg. fifteen pupils per teacher) facilitate frequent cooperative learning in pairs and small groups.

Assessment Practices

When the program first opened in 1996, admission was based primarily on interest in immersion education and a developmental skills checklist developed by the South Boulevard kindergarten teachers at that time. Beginning in 2003, as part of the Final Settlement Agreement of a federal desegregation lawsuit that remained open from 1956 to 2007, the school board agreed to operate an “academic theme ‘strand’” of dedicated magnet schools—one of which was South Boulevard Elementary. Because an advanced academic curriculum was going to be used, district administrators decided that students accepted into academic magnet programs must score at least 85 on the Brigance kindergarten screening2 to gain admission into the program.

Students are tested throughout the year using district-mandated benchmark testing in English. School Report Cards from 1997-2004 show that fourth grade students at South Boulevard have consistently scored better on both the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) than other students in EBRP and in Louisiana. During spring 2007 LEAP testing, South Boulevard fourth graders ranked fifth out of fifty-five EBRP elementary schools on English/Language Arts and fourth on Mathematics (in terms of percentage of students passing the LEAP).

Because South Boulevard teachers wanted to test students’ target language proficiency, they searched for a suitable oral proficiency assessment, but were unable to find one that suited their needs. Thus, approximately three years ago they began developing their own oral proficiency test. The interviews are conducted at the end of each school year. Students are interviewed in the target language by a teacher (other than their regular classroom teacher) who assesses their speech on a scale from 1 (=needs work) to 4 (=very good) according to fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. According to the school principal, data from the proficiency interviews has been especially helpful in terms of defining expectations for target language use. As a result, they have developed a series of articulated target language use objectives for each grade level. These indicate the type and quantity of target language that should be used between August and December, January and April, and April until the end of the school year. The school principal and teachers want to continue refining the oral proficiency interview procedure.

Data collected during approximately 300 hours of participant observation at the school and interviews with immersion teachers suggest that the majority of students at South Boulevard have excellent listening comprehension skills, near-native pronunciation, and good speaking skills in controlled, familiar situations. Students make numerous grammatical and syntactical errors in speech—particularly when they branch out to conversation topics outside the school setting—yet these mistakes do not impede communication. As with all content areas and skills, some students’ language skills are superior, while others’ are weak. Since reading and writing in the target language are not a focus of the curriculum, students’ skills in these two areas are not as strong.

Students speak their target language with confidence and ease. They are willing to take risks with the language and are not afraid of making mistakes. They occasionally speak “Franglais” or “Spanglish”—as do their native-speaking teachers. For example, during one site visit, a fourth grade teacher asked her class to explain what a “recurso natural” (natural resource) was. A boy immediately raised his hand and offered the following spontaneous explanation: “Un recurso natural es una cosa que una persona no build; es de nature” (“A natural resource is something that a person doesn’t build; it’s from nature”). He neither stumbled nor hesitated. The teacher enthusiastically accepted his response and continued with the lesson. In sum, South Boulevard students’ target language skills are something of a mixed bag. Yes, they make mistakes in oral and written communication, but they also understand the target language and are understood by each other and their teachers.

Parent and Community Involvement

A group of highly-motivated parents established a parent-teacher organization in 2006 that has made remarkable progress. Since officially gaining non-profit status, the South Boulevard PTO has raised funds to purchase computers and a digital camera, playground equipment, and additional books for the school library.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, parent activism in the last five years led to two significant achievements. First, the PTO actively lobbied the school district for more than two years to create a middle school program for students to continue their immersion education. In 2007, the district created a middle school program in which immersion students learn social studies and language arts in the target language. The language arts course integrates target language literacy development with a focus on form that is not present in the K-5 program, at least not in a systematic or explicit way. Middle school students are explicitly taught grammar and vocabulary and work more extensively on their second language reading and writing skills than they do at the K-5 level. Because the K-5 teachers use content-based instruction and because of the pressure they feel to prepare students for high-stakes tests, they tend to focus more on content than language. They accept incorrect target language utterances, recasting them perhaps, and then move on—anxious to continue teaching the content.

Second, parents lobbied the school board to reverse an earlier decision to move the immersion program into a new school building that would have housed a Montessori magnet program, the immersion program, and a regular education program. Many parents educated themselves about immersion research and convinced the school board that the immersion program would be diluted if the school were merged with non-immersion programs. The school board waited until the eleventh hour, but agreed in May 2009 to allow the immersion program to remain in its current location.

Media Resources

Beginning in 2007, South Boulevard established a computer lab for student and teacher use in addition to existing classroom computers. ELA and immersion teachers use the computer lab to enhance regular classroom instruction and are experimenting with videoconferencing. South Boulevard students have used videoconferencing to do presentations (in French and in Spanish) on Mardi Gras celebrations for several schools in Texas and have watched skits performed by area high school Spanish students.

Looking Ahead to the Future

South Boulevard has been successful in terms of desegregation, student achievement, and second language acquisition. However, the immersion program faces two significant challenges. First, while South Boulevard consistently has a waiting list for kindergarten and first grade seats, attrition in the upper grades is a problem. This is primarily due to the fact that many South Boulevard students have parents who are students or employees of Louisiana State University or work for one of numerous area oil and gas companies. Thus, when these parents graduate, accept positions at other universities, or get transferred to other cities, those students’ seats in the program cannot be filled after kindergarten or first grade due to the target language proficiency requirement. Few students drop out of the program due to dissatisfaction or poor academic performance. While the lower grades typically have twenty to twenty-five students per class, the upper grades have gone as low as eight students per class. This creates potential problems in terms of the district’s willingness to continue to fund both the elementary and the middle school programs.

A second challenge is finding a suitable physical facility. The district built a new school to house the program, but ultimately allowed it to remain in its current building; parents had complained that moving the immersion program into a school with two other non-immersion programs would compromise program integrity. However, the current physical facility is in poor condition and not up to ADA standards and thus is not sustainable long-term. South Boulevard parents and teachers are committed to immersion education and are actively seeking ways to sustain and improve the program regardless of where it is housed.

End notes

  1. I use the terms “Black” and “non-Black” because these are the terms that have been used in demographic records throughout the era of court-ordered desegregation.

  2. The Brigance is one of the most widely used kindergarten screenings. The screening, which most students finish in about 15 minutes, provides teachers with a broad sampling of a student’s skills.

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