Many smart people I know vilified the proposal to expand immersion options in our elementary schools while others couldn't understand why it took so long. Arguments on both sides hold water, although few campaigners have changed their minds in the five-year-old debate.
Some pounded because they wanted better, faster or slower solutions, and some felt so betrayed they retaliated with threats to withhold donations from their schools, sue the district, recall board members or pursue a charter school.
My greatest regret is that I wasn't more effective in building upon the shared goals that have made our district so great.
But now it's time to move forward with the best common principles in mind and get to work on modernizing our district's world-language strategies for students in all grades.
Advocates for and against Mandarin immersion share an important idea: They support second-language proficiency for all students. The gnarly public debate over how to get there hasn't yet produced a collective vision for improving our world-language program, but thinking big will be worth the growing pains.
It's tempting to imagine all PAUSD children understanding, speaking, reading and writing in two languages by the end of elementary school. Picture students taking a third language in middle school, and high-school students mastering AP world-language exams as sophomores.
In 10 years, will juniors at Gunn and Paly pursue summer study or service projects in Latin America and China? Can children in our elementary schools spend time learning about impressionist painters, ancient civilizations, or levers and pulleys in Spanish or Mandarin?
This big idea is at our doorstep. Thirty-four percent of PAUSD elementary students already speak two languages. About one in five speak Mandarin or Spanish (almost equally split), with English as their second language. As they become bilingual in our "English-immersion" schools, how might their strong native-language skills help other children learn and master Spanish or Mandarin?
Tapping this natural resource could accelerate second-language acquisition for our native-English-speaking children, who are now the least likely to become bilingual by the time they graduate.
Language-immersion instruction is inexpensive, effective and scalable. The strategy needs no extra teachers or district funds. The small operating budget for translated instructional materials, library books and program planning is funded with voluntary parent donations, much like music, sports and robotics programs in most school districts. Immersion works because children's brains are wired to learn language at an early age, so that only a portion of core-subject instruction delivered in a second language can result in mastery.
After 12 years, PAUSD's highly successful Spanish immersion experiment has made the case. The 450 students who enrolled in the choice program are now reading and writing in two languages. Children learn both Spanish and English following the same curriculum as the district's monolingual classes.
By fourth grade, their math, reading and writing skills in English match district peers, and they exceed core-subject proficiency standards in Spanish. Given this exemplary model, as well as the growing bank of grade-level lesson plans already developed in Spanish, and on the way in Mandarin, how can we build on the incremental steps to spread, morph or augment the strategy districtwide?
There is strong and growing parent interest in immersion: 185 parents signed up for 40 kindergarten spaces available in the Spanish program this fall. With the school board approval of the superintendent's recommendation on the Mandarin pilot, 20 more spaces will be added in 2008. What about a student perspective? Max Keeler, a Gunn junior and member of the first Spanish-immersion class, is intensely grateful for the experience: "Learning two languages opened up my world by two dozen countries and cultures."
Planning a career in international business after college, Keeler is certain his Spanish skills opened doors. This summer, he will apply those skills for six weeks in Honduras as he works on an "Amigos de las Américas" service project building water-storage tanks and cement floors with local families.
Can this one step in adding a small Mandarin-immersion choice program result in significant opportunities for students? Consider the genesis of Paly's award-winning journalism program. Today, it is the largest and most successful high school journalism program in the nation, enrolling an astounding 375 students every year. It started with one class, 19 students and a teacher's commitment to provide opportunities for all interested students.
When Esther Wojcicki was asked to be the faculty advisor for the Campanile student newspaper in 1985, the staff totaled 19 students. Within three years, student interest had doubled. Ten years later Wojcicki converted the back of her cramped classroom into a pilot program for Web journalism (now the award-winning Voice, with Paul Kandell as advisor) to deal with the burgeoning student interest, while still teaching the Campanile program. When student enrollment tripled again, broadcast journalism was launched (now the live news production InFocus, with Mike McNulty as advisor), followed by a magazine-journalism spin off (feature-story-oriented Verde, with Kandell as advisor).
The students keep knocking and Wojcicki has coaxed yet another eager start-up crew to design and lead a new sports-journal publication this fall.
Perhaps the district's immersion programs will be equally successful and grow to serve hundreds of students. Maybe partial-day models will proliferate at our elementary schools. Either way, Spanish immersion started a great idea in 1995, and Mandarin immersion will bring us one step closer.
The world is knocking, the doors are opening, and our parents and students want in.
As next year's task force studies our K-12 world-language program, including options to offer more elementary instruction, let's build some better bridges and think big.