As the Palo Alto school district likely faces a debate in the new school year over the future of its world-language programs, new survey data offers insight into how students, teachers and parents overlap and differ on the subject.
While Palo Alto parents and teachers are supportive of bringing traditional, non-immersion foreign language instruction into the district's 13 elementary schools, students would prefer additional immersion programs in new languages, according to just-released surveys conducted by Hanover Research Group, a firm the district commissioned this year to evaluate its K-12 world-language programs.
Hanover polled 2,657 high school students; 2,780 parents, mostly of elementary school students; 166 high school teachers and administrators and 371 elementary and middle school teachers and administrators. Each group received a survey tailored to relevant experiences and interests, though many surveys had overlapping questions.
The results indicate broad support for the district's two immersion programs: Spanish, which has long been offered at Escondido Elementary School, and Mandarin, which began at Ohlone Elementary School in 2008. Ninety-two percent of immersion students and 93 percent of immersion parents said they were glad they (or their children, respectively) participated in an immersion program.
"By starting at an early age, it was easy to adapt," one student wrote.
The survey responses lent support for more continued intensive instruction in middle school. One Spanish-immersion student lamented that during middle school, "My Spanish levels fell a lot."
A parent wrote, "Program loses much of its Spanish language value when it shifts from total immersion in third grade to an elective in middle and high school."
Whether the majority would take advantage of an intensive middle school curriculum is unclear, however. Even though half of the high school survey respondents who went to Escondido studied Spanish in the immersion program, only 9 percent who went on to attend Jordan enrolled in the Spanish-immersion program there.
Perhaps as a result, some immersion students wrote that they felt unprepared for high school courses.
About half of parents said they see the immersion programs as superior to traditional language classes, compared to 34 percent of students who either agree or strongly agree that they're superior. Mandarin-immersion parents accounted for slightly more than a third of parent survey respondents. About half of parents had children who had been in the Escondido Spanish-immersion program.
When it comes to expanding immersion offerings, 52 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the district should expand immersion in the elementary schools. Thirty-eight percent had no opinion. They reported a preference for new immersion programs in French (the most requested language), Japanese, German and Sign Language. Forty-five percent agreed or strongly agreed that elementary schools should offer non-immersion language instruction.
Parents indicated slightly more support for expanding Spanish immersion (49 percent) over Mandarin immersion (42 percent).
What parents more strongly preferred, though, was to add non-immersion classes in elementary school. Seventy-one percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed with that goal, compared to 53 percent who agreed or strongly agreed that the district should add immersion programs to other elementary schools.
Most parents would like to see non-immersion Spanish offered, followed by Mandarin and French. About half of parents said foreign language should be required in elementary school while 30 percent disagreed.
Most elementary, middle and high school teachers also support adding traditional language instruction over new immersion programs at the elementary schools. As for making foreign language instruction a requirement in elementary school, more elementary and middle school teachers are against the idea than for it: 47 percent said it shouldn't be required, compared to the 28 percent who said it should. Thirty-nine percent of high school teachers think it should be a requirement; 30 percent disagree.
Almost half of the high school students surveyed supported non-immersion foreign language instruction at the elementary school level, but 57 percent don't think it should be a required class.
Teachers' responses to open-ended questions gave voice to both sides of the world-language debate, with some staunchly behind the need to teach students languages as early as possible, and others, critical of it.
"When begun in elementary years, it creates a broader, more flexible perspective that supports open mindset, cross-cultural understanding, and appreciation of differences in all parts of life. Do we not want that in place (or growing in parallel) as our children are developing character, morals, self-esteem, world view and even friendship?" one teacher wrote.
"At what expense would a foreign-language program at the elementary come?" another teacher asked. "What gives? Less math? Less reading and writing? What about cost and finding qualified staff to run such a program?
"Say 'no' to increased burden on the students and staff because a few parents would like to create additional advantages for their children at the expense of everyone."
All of the survey respondents reported an unfamiliarity with the district's K-12 language offerings, echoing comments from focus groups Hanover conducted that describe the district's world-language programs as disjointed and isolated.
More than half of all the responding high school teachers, 23 of whom taught a foreign language class this past year, said they are not at all familiar with the Mandarin and Spanish immersion programs. Similarly, 59 percent of parents said they are not at all familiar with Jordan's Spanish-immersion program; 41 percent are not at all familiar with the Ohlone program and 39 percent not at all familiar with the Escondido program. Even higher percentages of students were unfamiliar with the immersion programs.