by Elizabeth Darling
For the first time ever, the Palo Alto school district this fall will offer a Spanish immersion kindergarten class. The class, at Fairmeadow School, will have 28 children. It was put in place in direct response to parent requests and a survey which found that 186 parents of incoming kindergartners were interested in the idea.
For the last year, the school district and individual schools have been looking at ways to introduce foreign language to elementary school children, whether it be for a few minutes a day, or full time.
South Palo Alto is experiencing growth in kindergarten enrollment, and Fairmeadow needed to add a kindergarten anyway. For almost no extra cost, the district agreed to try an immersion program.
The district has made an offer to a Spanish-language kindergarten teacher, who will teach the class 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English.
The children will progress through school each year in immersion classes, but the proportion of English will increase to 50 percent in third through fifth grades.
"I'm very excited," said Associate Superintendent Barbara Liddell. "My personal vision is I would love all of our students to graduate fluent in a second language."
Starting language immersion in kindergarten "is the most cost-effective way to produce bilingual students," she said.
Spanish-language materials are a bit more expensive than English ones, she said, but other than that, the cost is the same as it would be to start a regular kindergarten class.
The 28 kindergartners will come from throughout the city, with 17 coming from south Palo Alto, eight from the west and three from the north.
Fairmeadow parent Gay Baldwin was instrumental in getting the program off the ground, starting by going to kindergarten registration day and having interested parents sign up. Her own older children won't get to be in the program, but she hopes her 2-year-old will.
Two-thirds of the parents said Spanish would be their first choice, with Chinese coming in second.
"I'm so glad, even though it's budget crunch time, they're going out on a limb to start this program," Baldwin said.
Parents hope to get a parent education component put in place so that they can attend language classes themselves, along with their children.
English-speaking children can enter the program in kindergarten or first grade, but no later. Children whose primary language is Spanish can jump in at any time.
"The main thing the parents were most concerned about is that this group of children would get to do it up through fifth grade," Baldwin said.
Most parents are enthusiastic about it.
"To me it's just a 21st-century skill that's indispensable," said Daunna Minnich, who has two adopted children from Chile. She hopes both will be able to be in the program.
"I just thought it would be a real wonderful gift to give my daughter," said Ann Kern, whose daughter would have gone to Duveneck, except Kern decided to try the immersion program. "I have yet to find one person that has anything bad to say about the academic advantages. There's enough data for me to be reassured about the academic soundness."
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