In Any Language, A Success

April Wu’s second-graders — some whose first language is Mandarin, others whose first language is English — focus on their lessons earlier this week. Photos by Henk Friezer

JANNA Philpot admits she had some initial concerns about her son being enrolled as a kindergarten student in the first year of the Spanish dual-immersion program at Monterey Hills Elementary School.

“I didn’t want him to worry, so I told him we’d won the lottery and he was going to take Spanish,’’ Philpot recalled, looking back on her son’s first days in the program five years ago.

“I thought he’d say something more the first days, but a couple of weeks later, he said to me, ‘Mom, you put me in the wrong class. This teacher doesn’t speak English.’ ’’

Mom told her son, and herself, to hang in there. And sure enough, they both like the program – one of two dual-immersion language programs in the South Pas elementary schools. The other is a Mandarin dual-immersion, taught at Marengo Elementary School.

At Monterey Hills, the Spanish program is now run in one class per grade, in grades K through 4. At Marengo, the Mandarin program, begun a year later, is run in two classes in grades K through 3. Each year, a new kindergarten class starts from scratch.

Overall, current enrollment in the Monterey Hills Spanish program is 126 students in five classes, with an average class size of 25. In Marengo’s Mandarin program, the numbers are 192 students in eight classes with an average class size of 24.

There is competition to get into those classes, too. Janna Philpot really did win a lottery to get her son into the Spanish class.

Teacher April Wu leads her second-grade dual-immersion Mandarin class at Marengo Elementary School. All subjects, all day, are taught in both Mandarin and English. In the Mandarin class, the ratio is 50-50. In the Spanish dual-immersion class at Monterey Hills Elementary, the ratio is as high as 90-10 in favor of Spanish in the lower grades.

“I told him, ‘You’ll have fun,’ ’’ she recalled of that first conversation with her son. “And sure enough, it happened. He became fast friends with people in the class. Eventually, he started to learn Spanish and he was off to the races.’’

Now Philpot is on a committee to investigate ways to expand the Spanish program into middle school. Parents, meanwhile, met with administrators Tuesday to get their questions answered about possible enrollment in the dual-immersion program for next school year.

“Over the past five years, the SPUSDS dual-immersion program has really taken off,” Superintendent Geoff Yantz told the Review.

“Upon visiting the dual-immersion classrooms, I feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment in watching students acquire a second language and our gifted teachers transform their instruction.’’

The district currently offers a six-year immersion program.

“The exploratory committee is engaging in a process to determine the program’s feasibility at South Pasadena Middle School in preparation for this year’s fourth-grade Spanish students when they enter sixth grade,’’ Yantz said.

Christiane Gervais, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said it was no accident that Janna Philpot’s son thought his teacher didn’t speak English.

“We want to give the appearance that the teacher doesn’t speak English,’’ Gervais said. 

“The students are amazing. They are like sponges the way they soak it all in. It’s magical to go into a class. The students are so immersed in the environment they don’t even know what they are doing is extraordinary. 

“You see children helping other children. Just the way they support each other is extraordinary.’’

Parents jam the board room at the school district’s headquarters on Tuesday night to get their questions answered about possible enrollment in the dual-immersion program for their kids for next year.

At Monterey Hills, about half of the 25 students in each class are proficient Spanish speakers (based on a test before they enter the program), and the other half are not. The classes start out in kindergarten and first grade as 90 percent Spanish-taught. By the fifth grade, the students will be speaking 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent English in the classes.

At Marengo, the same ratio is used for the composition of the Mandarin class, but the ratio of English to Mandarin spoken in class is 50-50 from the beginning because alphabetic differences mean language transfer takes longer. For that reason, there is an equal emphasis on the target language and on English.

Michelle Kim has both of her daughters in the program as native-language Mandarin speakers. One girl is now in the third grade and the other is in kindergarten.

Kim is a booster of the program.

“I’ve seen the native Mandarin kids interacting with the English-language kids,’’ she said.

“When they talk, they teach each other things. I can see they are learning from each other — not just academics, but on other topics. It’s like a mutual learning thing.

“By the third grade, all of the kids who came in as Mandarin speakers are on par with anyone else. Everyone is pretty equal. They don’t really separate out based on language anymore.’’

Both her daughters love the program, she said.

“They don’t know any different,’’ Kim said. “Another language taught in school is very natural, so it’s fantastic.’’

The district is hoping it can get students to complete all six years of the program, despite possible student or parent frustrations.

“It’s a little scary starting out,’’ Philpot said. “It’s like a roller-coaster. You’re going to have some highs and lows, but I think he’s going to be better at the end for going through it.’’

Gervais talked about the students having the exposure to different cultures, and Philpot can second that thought.

Philpot was born and raised in Los Angeles, and her first language was Spanish — but she admits her Spanish is sometimes not strong enough to keep up with some homework. That’s where apps come in, and the school also collaborates to help students.

“It makes me sort of appreciate what I’ve lost and helped me recover some, but not all (of her Spanish),’’ she said. “We go on extended family vacations, and you should see the grins on their faces.

“Connections are being made. It’s exactly what we were hoping for.’’

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