Delaware Public Media

Quickly expanding language immersion program a Markell legacy

Jan 27, 2017

“It’s good to know another language, so you don’t have to speak English all the time,” 6-year-old Emma Bonis says.

“It’s important to communicate with the Chinese people,” adds 8-year-old Jordana Risi. “If I know Chinese, I’ll know what they’re saying.”

Emma, a first-grader, and Jordana, a second-grader, attend John R. Downes Elementary School in Newark, one of the first schools in the state to participate in the World Language Expansion Initiative announced in 2011 by former Gov. Jack Markell.

The kids have Markell’s talking points down cold. “As much as people like to believe the world revolves around the United States, it does not. One way to give our kids more opportunity is to help them to converse and do business in a language other than English,” Markell said shortly before leaving office in January. “I think it will give them an enormous advantage.”

Pilot programs began in 2012 – in Spanish at William C. Lewis Elementary in Wilmington and John M. Clayton Elementary in Frankford and in Chinese at the McIlvane Early Childhood Center in Magnolia – followed by a full launch in the 2013-14 school year at seven schools. Currently there are 22 public schools in 11 districts offering immersion programs – 18 in Spanish and five in Chinese, with McIlvane offering both languages. Ten more elementary schools will introduce immersion programs during the 2017-18 school year – eight in Spanish and two in Chinese, according to Lynn Fulton-Archer, a specialist in world language immersion at the state Department of Education. 

(See a full rundown of schools with language immersion here.)

Students participating in the immersion program spend half the school day learning in English and half a day in Chinese or Spanish. Typically English language arts and social studies are taught in English, and math and science are taught in the world language.

Two charter schools – Academia Antonio Alonso near Wilmington and Las Americas Aspira Academy in Newark – offer dual-language Spanish immersion programs with a slightly different model, says Gregory Fulkerson, director of the language acquisition work group at the state Department of Education. Those schools alternate full days of instruction in English and Spanish.

With next year’s expansion, “we will have well over 4,000 students and about one-seventh of the kindergarten students in the state” participating in immersion programs, Fulkerson said. That tally does not include the two charter schools, whose enrollment totals more than 1,000 students.

Also on the horizon is the extension of the immersion program into the state’s middle schools and eventually to the high school level. Current fifth-graders at Lewis Elementary will move into a middle school in the Red Clay Consolidated School District next year.

The likely program model calls for immersion instruction for 30 percent of the school day, Fulton-Archer says. Students will receive language arts instruction in Spanish or Chinese for grades six through eight, plus instruction in one core subject – social studies in grades six and seven and science in eighth grade.

As currently envisioned, immersion students would take an Advanced Placement exam in their language in ninth grade, and then would take college-level courses in that language for the balance of their high school careers.

“We’re starting conversations with the University of Delaware to design a dual enrollment program,” Fulkerson says. If that works out, “students could graduate from high school with enough college credit to qualify for a minor in their language,” he says.

At Downes, students start in kindergarten by learning Mandarin characters and everyday words and phrases. By second grade, they are engaging in rapid-fire conversations with their teachers, aided occasionally by dialog suggested by Mandarin words posted on the classroom wall.

“She asks things like ‘what do you like to eat?’ or ‘what is your favorite color?’ and you choose the answer,” Jordana says.

Ketong Chen, a Chinese national who teaches third grade, says her students don’t speak Chinese as well as children of the same age in China, “but they are doing pretty good.”

The difference, she says, is “they don’t speak and listen to the language at home.”

Michael and Rebecca Kalmbach, whose son Thurman is in Chen’s class, have invited Chinese students from the university’s English Language Institute into their home.

“I believe these home stay students have enriched Thurman's experience. Seeing him interacting with these students speaking the language, reading and writing the characters blows my mind,” Michael Kalmbach says.

“It is really something to listen to him using the language outside of class with his friends,” adds Rebecca Kalmbach, a foreign language teacher in the Appoquinimink School District.

The Kalmbachs hope to enroll their daughter in the immersion program when she enters kindergarten this fall. But Rebecca admits to having some concern about her children becoming fluent in a language she doesn’t understand, saying “I can only imagine how they will take advantage of this, for better or worse, when they are teenagers!”

About half of the Downes student body is enrolled in the immersion program and few have dropped out because they weren’t happy with the program, Principal Patricia Prettyman says. The first group – two classes of 22 students – is now down to 16 in each, but the prime reason for the shrinkage is families moving out of the area. Some have withdrawn because parents thought the program was too challenging for their children, she says.

When spaces open up within the program, they often cannot be filled, Prettyman explains, because a child entering the program after the middle of first grade would find it almost impossible to catch up with his peers.

Exceptions are made, she adds, for children from Chinese-speaking families. “They’re excited about having the English and Chinese interaction,” she says.

Lewis Elementary has a similar policy with its Spanish immersion program, Principal Adriadna Castaneda says.

While most schools with immersion programs have about half their students enrolled, the entire Lewis student body – about 450 students in kindergarten through fifth grade – is enrolled, Castaneda says.

Another difference at Lewis, she says, is that it is “two-way bilingual” because the neighborhoods in the school’s feeder pattern have a significant Latino population, so Spanish is the primary language in nearly half the students’ homes.

In an immersion program, teachers work in pairs, one speaking English and the other the immersion language. It is important that they coordinate their lessons so they reinforce language development.

For example, Castaneda says, if the week’s science lessons, taught in Spanish, are on plant life, the English language arts teacher might incorporate reading about trees in her lesson plan.

As the immersion programs grow, two potential issues loom: funding and teacher recruiting.

The state currently provides startup funding for participating schools -- $10,000 for a planning year, then $20,000 for each year a grade is added, to cover the costs of books, supplies, and other essentials for the program. Funds for teachers’ salaries come from the state unit count formula plus local supplements raised through property tax dollars.

To use the Downes third grade as an example, when that group of 44 students started kindergarten, they would have qualified for two state teacher units. With only 32 students, funding for the second teacher becomes problematic. It hasn’t become an issue yet because immersion program students are not separated from other students for unit-count purposes. However, if overall enrollment at a participating school drops and a teacher unit is lost, there is nothing to prevent a school district from making a staff cut in the immersion program.

“There isn’t a money commitment there [from the state],” says Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District, which has Chinese and Spanish immersion programs in four buildings. Since Markell started the program, “it would be wonderful if Gov. [John] Carney would pick up the challenge” to provide ongoing funding.

The growth of the immersion programs makes teacher recruitment not only a continuing challenge but one that increases every year.

“It’s tough. They have to be elementary education certified as well as certified for teaching the Chinese language,” says Prettyman, the Downes principal.

The Department of Education has signed memorandums of understanding with foreign agencies, like the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture and the Chinese Language Council International, better known as Hanban, which have agreed to supply teachers for Delaware’s public schools. With current schools adding a grade a year to the program and new schools being added each year, more teachers are needed each cycle.

And, unlike teachers who are U.S. citizens, these teachers see their stays here as temporary, whether it’s because of visa limitations or because they see teaching in Delaware as a way to learn about another country while gaining professional experience before returning to their native land.

“The first year, I had to apply to Hanban. The second and third years, we were able to get U.S. citizens,” Prettyman says. Ketong Chen, this year’s addition to the staff, earned her undergraduate degree in China, then came to the University of Delaware in 2014 to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. She has applied for a visa extension for another three years, but is not sure whether she wants to stay in the U.S. or return to China when the extension expires.

“With more districts, it’s more difficult competing for teachers, but we knew that going in,” Prettyman says.

Districts are already thinking about meeting the staffing challenge when the middle school program begins, Fulkerson says. Some districts have middle school science teachers who speak Chinese, he says.

The state has “a large number of well-educated professionals” who speak Chinese or Spanish who might be interested in launching a new career in education, he says.

While funding and recruiting are potential issues the educators have the power to resolve, there’s a major uncertainty that’s beyond their ability to control: whether President Trump’s repeated mentions of a changing relationship between the United States and China will have an impact that trickles down into the Chinese immersion program.

“It hasn’t been discussed but I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind,” Prettyman says. “If the relationship changes, we could find that fewer visas are granted for teachers – or no visas at all.”

Since Trump’s election, “we haven’t sensed any decline in the interest or the importance of the program,” Fulkerson says. “The excitement is there.”

“One thing I believe about our new president,” Fitzgerald says, “is that he’s a very astute businessman. While there may be an ideological disagreement, there is an awareness of the importance of competing on the international level.”

In that context, Fulkerson adds, “over the long term, it might become more important than ever to know Chinese.”

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