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Intrigued by immersion schools? Cal State Fullerton event looks at bilingual K-12 students

Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of schools that offer bilingual education starting in kindergarten.
Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of schools that offer bilingual education starting in kindergarten.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

California State University Fullerton education researchers are looking at how K-12 schools can better teach bilingual children. About a quarter of public school students statewide live in bilingual households, according to California Department of Education statistics.

"One of the biggest barriers is access to translated school material," CSU Fullerton Professor Sharon Chappell said. “Curriculum can be very monocultural.”

She said the university organizes “Bilingual Family Night” on campus Tuesday night to allow parents and educators to share their efforts to create a welcoming environment at schools for students who speak a second language.

At tonight's event, Chappell will talk about her research into how schools create an inclusive environment for bilingual students, a Mexican folkloric dance troupe will perform, and Chappell will screen a film based on her research,  "Con Mucho Orgullo:  Oral Histories of Bilingual Families in California Schools."

In Los Angeles County, students just learning English are most likely to speak Spanish, Armenian, Cantonese, and Korean. In Orange County, it’s Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Arabic. California has been struggling to raise the academic performance of these students.

Chappell said it's obvious when a school is trying.

“You might see communication boards in many languages, newsletters in many languages going out to parents, homework that’s family-based where families can write in the home languages,” Chappell said.

She and others are struggling to convince educators that it’s paramount they see the language and cultural knowledge students bring to the classroom as an asset rather than a liability.

Irene Arellano said few teachers in Santa Ana public schools praised her for her knowledge of Mexican history and traditions -- or for being a fluent Spanish-speaker.

“They’d tell students ‘it’s great you speak Spanish but we want you to speak English, it’s the dominant language,’” said Arellano, who's now studying political science at Cal State Fullerton. She thanks her parents for instilling those traditions in her.

She heard about the bilingual family event at the campus pre-school, where her 5 year old daughter attends.

Arellano is such a strong believer in the benefits of bilingualism that she plans to enroll her daughter in a dual immersion program at her neighborhood elementary school in Anaheim.  She said the area needs more of these schools -- but she still has her doubts.

“I’m worried that the programs are so new that she might be a guinea pig, she might not get the best education possible,” said Arellano.

Chappell studies the strengths and weaknesses of dual immersion schools.  These programs devote a majority of instruction in a foreign language in the early grades and ramp up English instruction year after year.