Pasadena schools have an ear for languages
District expands Spanish and Chinese immersion programs to meet growing demand.
Students draw characters in first-grade Mandarin class at Field Elementary School in Pasadena. Pasadena schools are adding more language immersion classes to fill demand. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / September 7, 2012)
The Pasadena Unified School District’s language immersion programs started three years ago with just a few dozen kindergartners and first-graders. Now more than 450 K-through-4 students are enrolled, including one in eight children who started kindergarten in the district this fall.
Local educators say students who become literate in multiple languages tend to develop better problem-solving skills and outperform English-only students on standardized tests.
Parents say their children will gain a leg up in the college admissions process and an increasingly global economy if they are bilingual.
“I think it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to kids today,” said West Pasadena Residents Assn. Vice President Catherine Stringer, whose children attend Spanish immersion classes at San Rafael Elementary School.
In response to growing demand, the district began offering Spanish immersion preschool classes at San Rafael earlier this month.
School officials also started a second Spanish immersion program this year with kindergartners at Jackson Elementary School in Altadena.
Mandarin Chinese immersion classes at Field Elementary School on Pasadena’s east side have also expanded from two to three kindergarten classes, pushing enrollment in Field’s K-through-4 program above 200.
The school district may launch an Armenian immersion program at Webster Elementary School on East Washington Boulevard, district spokesman Adam Wolfson said.
Pasadena’s immersion programs require students to use Spanish or Chinese for about 90% of class time during kindergarten, gradually introducing more English in later grades, said teacher and program coordinator Amanda Schwartz.
Classes aim for an equal balance of students who know only English and those who come in speaking at least some Spanish or Chinese.
“They serve as language models for each other,” said Schwartz, who enrolled her daughter in the Chinese program. “I told my daughter to pay attention to those who understand the teacher … and they do translation for each other.”
Shih Yung Lee, who speaks English and Chinese, said she enrolled her daughter in kindergarten at Field this year to keep her from losing her family’s native language.
“My daughter would refuse to speak Mandarin at home … which I think is normal for the second generation,” Lee said. “Some of my friend’s parents told them not to speak Mandarin at home, and they lost it. I want [my daughter] to have the opportunity to be bilingual.”
Lee, who lives in the Temple City Unified School District, petitioned officials in both school districts to allow her daughter to enroll at Field.
Wolfson said dozens of children have transferred from other school districts, including high performers such as Arcadia and La Cañada Flintridge, to join Pasadena’s immersion programs — boosting enrollment totals, and therefore state funding, for the district.
But officials have had a hard time recruiting local Spanish-speaking parents whose children don’t know much English, Wolfson said. Only about one-third of San Rafael immersion students came in primarily speaking Spanish, according to Schwartz.
Perhaps the biggest impact of San Rafael’s immersion program has been as a magnet for families in surrounding West Pasadena neighborhoods that once almost exclusively opted for private schools, according to parents.
Previously, Stringer said, few San Rafael-area families opted for public school.
“It was the immersion program that convinced me a public school was the right choice for us,” she said.