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Topic 5: Admission

With the exception of kindergarten and, perhaps, Grade 1 admissions, immersion schools cannot operate like other schools that enroll students at any grade level and accept new students throughout the school year. Incoming students at Grade 2 and beyond must have a solid background in the language of instruction so any openings at those grade levels are not easily filled.

Practitioner Perspectives

Practitioner Perspectives

What kind of admission policies work well in immersion schools where students must have a fluent working knowledge of the target language?

Admission policies for immersion schools generally operate in accordance with established district practices for kindergarten and, possibly, first grade. In other words, enrollment is open to any family of a school age child. Policies about admitting students from outside the district will vary but our practitioners generally reported a preference for in-district families before considering out-of-district families. It may be necessary to hold a lottery for open places since immersion schools usually have a limited number of openings, e.g. 50-100 spaces for incoming kindergarteners depending on whether the school offers half- or full-day kindergarten. Sometimes, to encourage a greater diversity in the student body, schools will hold places for families who demonstrate need for free or reduced lunch assistance. However, our practitioners have not always seen this strategy succeed and acknowledge the need to work more proactively to attract a more diverse population.

Kindergarten classes in immersion schools are often larger than kindergarten classes in English-medium schools primarily because any attrition at upper grade levels can threaten the long-term viability of the program or school. Any school sees some demographic turnover from year to year, but unlike English-medium schools, immersion schools cannot easily replace students if they leave at the Grade 2 level or higher. There are simply very few children in the community who will be proficient enough in the language of instruction to fill seats made available by attrition at the intermediate elementary level. Larger than average kindergarten classes lessen the possibility of Grade 5 or Grade 6 class sizes that are deemed, by the district, too small to maintain.

Like a neighborhood school where all the children from a single family can enroll concurrently, parents of immersion children want to see younger ones attending the same school as their older siblings. A sibling preference policy can enhance a family’s commitment to the school and to early language learning. However, with such a policy there will inevitably be fewer open spaces at the kindergarten level when families who have children at upper grade levels are given preference for kindergarten spots. Although none of the practitioners we consulted questioned the wisdom of sibling preference, neither did they dismiss the controversy that the policy may spark in the community especially once the school has become a desirable option for a growing segment of the school-age population.

In addition to offering sibling preference, some districts like to offer an employment incentive - placement at any grade level to the children of native speaking staff.

How do immersion schools determine whether late entry students (usually post K-1 level) are sufficiently proficient in the languages used for instruction to benefit from the program without detracting from the language and content learning of the remaining students?

Immersion schools typically establish a policy for admitting students after Grade 1 that will depart from district admission policies. By Grade 2 immersion students must already have a high level of language proficiency in order to understand and complete schoolwork that is taught exclusively in the target language. It is unfair to both the new student and the immersion class when a student comes in who does not speak the language. First, it is highly likely that the student will engage classmates in conversation in English making it difficulty for the teacher to enforce “No English” rules thus compromising the immersion experience for the whole class. Second, it is probable that the new student will find the learning environment, immersed in a language he does not understand, confusing, disappointing, and/or frustrating. Therefore, schools must carefully consider under what conditions they will admit students after Grade 1.

The policy set for post-Grade 1 admission might include a written proficiency exam created by the school or acquired from an outside source, an oral interview or exam conducted in the target language, proof of attendance at another immersion school, or some combination of these strategies. One of our focus group schools is even contemplating a separate policy for students above Grade 1 that are on a waiting list. They would like to allow waiting list students who have attended an immersion school in another district to jump the queue, so to speak, since an immersion school experience almost certainly guarantees that such children will be sufficiently proficient in the target language and familiar with how immersion works.

Even with a clearly articulated admission policy, there may be instances when parents urge an immersion school to admit their child irrespective of exam and interview results that fall short of desired proficiency. Perhaps a younger sibling has been admitted into kindergarten and the parents would like all their children to attend the same school; perhaps they believe their child will acquire the necessary language skills quickly and easily; perhaps they have a misunderstanding of the level of proficiency required to function in an immersion classroom and succeed academically. Whatever the case, teachers and administrators must be prepared to counsel families firmly when it is determined that an older child could not be successful due to limited proficiency in the immersion language.

Some additional suggestions from practitioners:

  • Suggest holding an older student back a grade until he is able to negotiate academic work in the immersion language.
  • Admit an older student on a provisional basis with the requirement that language study occur during the summer at an immersion language camp or some other approved means.

Readings from the ACIE Archives:

Attrition in Four US Elementary Schools – Rigaud, ACIE, May 2005
Sibling Preference? By All Means! - Minnich, ACIE, February 2003

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