Every school day William Wooden wakes up and goes to class like millions of other children. There’s just one catch: when the nine-year-old arrives at his classroom in Kansas City, he never greets his teacher with “Good morning!” or “Hello.” No, at Académie Lafayette it’s always “Bonjour.”
Lafayette, a K-8 school, is one of a growing number of schools around the country that practice foreign language immersion education. For Will that means all his classes — science, math, social studies, language arts — are taught in French. The third-grader gets only 50 minutes of English each day.
Will’s mother, Amy Jordan Wooden, tells Latitude News the school has helped her son excel in both languages.
“As soon as Will learned French and got the basics down in kindergarten,” she explains, “he immediately began reading in English. It was like something just woke up in his brain and lit on fire.”
Wooden says Will is now conversationally fluent in French and her daughter, Lucy, a first-grader, is nearly there too. The best thing about Lafayette? It’s a public school.
“When I talk to my friends [about Lafayette],” she says, “they always ask: ‘How much do you pay?’ And I tell them it’s a free public charter school. But we would pay tuition if we had to. We’re so lucky to have this kind of opportunity in Kansas City.”
A growing national trend
You might expect to find a school like Académie Lafayette in Louisiana, which has a rich Francophone history, or more cosmopolitan areas likes New York or Los Angeles. But Kansas City? In fact, immersion language schools are popping up across the U.S. in unexpected places.
Can you guess what state has the most immersion programs? Okay, who said Utah? Be honest. It’s true: Utah had almost 60 such schools in 2011. Minnesota isn’t far behind and Hawaii, Louisiana and Oregon round out the top five. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of foreign language immersion schools in the U.S. rose from 263 to 448, according to data compiled by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a nonprofit research group. Most are middle or elementary schools. Only 79 are private.
Nancy Rhodes, CAL’s director of world languages, says Utah leads the pack thanks initiatives funded by its Mandarin-speaking former governor, Jon Huntsman. Many Mormon families, she adds, want their children to learn languages so they’ll be prepared for proselytizing missions overseas. And Rhodes says immersion language students have a natural advantage over traditional foreign language-learners.
“The immersion kids don’t speak exactly like native speakers,” she says, “but they have this natural confidence because they’ve been learning the language full time from such a young age. They’re not afraid to make errors. The language just flows.”
A CAL survey found that 45 percent of existing programs are conducted in Spanish, 22 percent in French, 13 percent in Mandarin and 6 percent in Hawaiian.
The first language immersion school in the U.S. opened in 1971 when a California school district instituted a Spanish pilot program based on French immersion in Montreal. Kansas City opened up its own version in the 80’s, but budget cuts in the 90’s forced many of those programs to close down or shrink, according to Académie Lafayette’s head of school Elimane Mbengue. Concerned parents who wanted their children to be bilingual banded together and in 1998 obtained a charter for Lafayette, which accepted its first class of 250 students the following year.
The perks of being a young language-learner
A common initial objection to immersion education is that it will harm children’s English skills and academic development. But that’s not the case, according to Diane Tedick, an associate professor of Second Languages and Cultures Education at the University of Minnesota.
“Over four decades of research conducted in such programs shows that native English-speaking students who attend immersion programs do as well as or better than students who are schooled only in English,” Tedick explains.
Test scores from Académie Lafayette, which has 775 students, reflect the success of immersion programs. In 2011, 89.5 percent of Lafayette’s eighth graders were judged proficient or advanced in communications arts, according to Missouri’s Department of Education, while 84.2 percent were proficient or advanced in math.
That’s more than thirty percentage points higher on each measure than the state average. The disparity is even wider between Lafayette and Kansas City schools: In 2011 only about a quarter of students in the Kansas City School District tested as proficient or advanced in math. Keep in mind Lafayette kids take these tests in English after an education conducted almost entirely in French.
Lafayette’s principal, Elimane Mbengue, says the benefits of an immersion education extend beyond test scores and job opportunities.
“Learning French — or any other language — in this way gives you an open-mindedness to the world,” argues Mbengue, who is from Senegal and came to Kansas City after stops in England and Oregon.
“Our teachers are from all over the globe,” adds Lafayette’s director of communication Katie Hendrickson. “It’s not uncommon for students to have a teacher from France one year, Senegal the next and Algeria after that.”
Will’s kindergarten teacher was a Muslim woman from Algeria who wore a head covering to class everyday. His mother says the teacher’s gentle presence in Will’s life was a powerful experience as negative stereotypes of Muslims proliferated in the aftermath of September 11th.
Room for improvement
Despite the success and growth of immersion education, Diane Tedick still thinks the system could be improved. One problem, she says, is the balance between language and subject matter is skewed too far toward the latter.
“Because students are so good at communicating meaning, even if they’re making mistakes,” she says, “teachers don’t always expect them to do it very well.” When teachers are teaching math or science or social studies, she says, they need to remain vigilant about language, while not tipping the scales too far in either direction.
Another pitfall to avoid? A lack of socioeconomic diversity. “We don’t want these programs to become something just for the elite,” says Tedick, pointing to research that shows immersion education helps kids of all social classes and ethnicities.
At Lafayette, for example, around 22 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch, according to Katie Hendrickson, the school’s communications director. At other public schools in the area, she says, that number is closer to 90 percent. Elimane Mbengue says he and his staff value diversity and plan to increase their recruiting efforts at local churches and neighborhood meetings.
One strategy to promote diversity is opening immersion schools in less wealthy urban areas. The Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School in Minneapolis serves a predominantly African American community in the city’s Jordan Park neighborhood. Nearly 70 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch, says principal Christina Maynor.
“In less affluent parts of the city,” she explains, “kids don’t even have access to any kind of language program. That means it’s harder for them to get into college. They have fewer options for economic opportunity, and a harder time connecting with their neighbors in what is becoming an increasingly multilingual, multicultural society in the U.S.”
Any parents out there planning on sending your kids to immersion schools? Do they already attend one? Tell us your story in the comment section below. We’ve already had responses on Facebook and Twitter from California, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Washington DC and Texas.