by Sara Shorin
When confusion and misinformation threatened the future of the highly successful Spanish immersion program my daughters attend in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, parents set out to share their own stories and provide accurate information about immersion education. It was unimaginable to me that the program, which began in 1998 with a single Kindergarten class and has grown to serve children in two schools through 8th grade, might be terminated.
A budget crisis required the district to maximize staffing and facilities, stirring up emotion and vocal opposition among local critics of immersion education. The towns where the schools are located, Kings Beach and Tahoe City, are now 85% Latino and 99.9% White, respectively. The school board realized it could save money by making Kings Beach all immersion and shifting the English mainstream program to Tahoe City. This would maximize district resources while also resulting in better integration, and therefore, better language outcomes among English- and Spanish-speaking students in both programs. But loud and angry voices continued to suggest that the district consider dismantling the immersion program altogether.
I attended school board meetings as part of an effort to save the program and soon realized that many of the critics did not fully understand the immersion program goals, methods, and benefits. Most of the opponents I spoke to did not know:
- how a second language is acquired,
- the overall benefit of becoming bilingual for both English and Spanish speakers,
- that Spanish speakers learn English in the immersion program,
- that it is not a remedial program for Spanish speakers and an enrichment program for English speakers,
- that both English and Spanish speakers score higher on state tests than English mainstream students
I had long wanted to create an outreach program to explain immersion education to both English- and Spanish-speaking parents so that they could better understand their choices. Unexpectedly, this controversy launched what would become our Parent-to-Parent Immersion Outreach group. Immersion parents realized that we needed to enter the conversation to dispel the myths and misinformation that threatened to end this valuable program. Speaking in Tongues became the foundation for our outreach and enabled us to share information in a way that did not come across as defensive or self-serving.
First, we showed the film to immersion parents to solidify our message and formulate a plan for sharing information that would include research articles, FAQs about our program, a film checkout from the school office (we purchased 6 copies), a Google group, a link to an immersion website from the main district site (still under construction), and program tours.
Next, we arranged a bilingual “Immersion Information Night” that included a public screening of Speaking In Tongues. We also introduced our teachers who led a PowerPoint presentation of the program and translated for the attendees. This was a great opportunity for parents and teachers to collaborate and reinforce how and why the program works. Parents enjoyed having the opportunity to hear from other parents and ask specific questions of the teachers. The successful evening (with 70 attending, including local media) provided immersion teachers and parents a forum to speak openly in a positive environment. With the film as a backdrop, we didn’t appear to be simply defending our own interests.
After the Info Night, we showed the film to a smaller, Spanish-speaking parent group with a translator so that we could explain how and why the program works for Spanish-speaking children. A few immersion parents in this group helped reinforce the fact that immersion is not only an effective route to bilingualism for English-speaking children, but equally important to Spanish speakers and other English Language Learners (ELLs), who wish to become bilingual on an academic level. Maintaining native languages helps people stay connected to their heritage and families, yet many Spanish-speaking parents do not understand how their kids would learn English in a Spanish immersion program. This lack of understanding often leads Spanish-speaking parents to opt for the English mainstream program because they believe, like many English and Spanish-speaking parents, that to learn English, children can only be in an English mainstream classroom. At the English mainstream program in Kings Beach, however, their children were surrounded by other ELLs and few, if any, native English-speaking peers until this year when the reconfiguration went into effect. Meanwhile, Spanish-speakers (and English-speakers) in the immersion program have consistently achieved at higher levels than their peers in the English mainstream on California state testing in both English Language Arts and Math.
Finally, we showed the film in a community center in Tahoe City, where many opponents live, hoping to reach the parents who were still reachable and wanted information.
Speaking in Tongues is the foundation of our outreach program, and I’ve been told that this outreach definitely had a positive impact. The film helped us educate all parents about immersion education, which has reduced the threat to our program. A few of the former immersion opponents have even enrolled their children in the program, and some of the most vocal critics have softened their tone. The film gave us focus and was the springboard that we needed in a time of anger, confusion, and misinformation. It gave us an opportunity to start a friendly, informative conversation with all parents, creating an accurate understanding of the immersion program that would naturally lead to acceptance throughout the community.
In 2010, our first immersion students graduated from high school. Many of them, including the valedictorian, were among the top 10 graduates. Also in 2010, the district’s first Spanish-speaking ELL students enrolled in AP English. I think these facts alone, as well as the testing data, reflect the quality of our program, but Speaking In Tongues will continue to be an important part of our Parent-to-Parent Immersion Outreach. In time, we believe the community will understand the immersion model and come to accept it as simply another education choice and possibly the best one for many students.
Sara Shorin has an 8th grader who went through the Spanish Immersion program in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, and a 3rd grader currently in the program. Since studying abroad in Germany and completing her senior thesis on bilingual education in the United States 25 years ago, Sara has remained interested in bilingual education and second language acquisition. It is her goal to expose her children to as many languages as possible.