Culver City Observer -

School Board Looks at Language Immersion Programs


September 30, 2010

Are language immersion programs working? That was the question School Board President Steven Gourley had for Tracy Pumilia, principal of El Marino Language School and project director for FLAP (Foreign Language Assistance Program), which gives grants to schools’ language programs.

Pumilia and FLAP Grant coordinator Mina Shiratori gave a presentation on CCUSD’s language immersion programs at the School Board’s meeting Tuesday night

Pumilia noted that CCUSD only received one FLAP grant last year, for El Marino’s Japanese program, but subsequently received a grant for the Spanish program as well. She explained that the grants are meant to help the program reach its goals, primarily increasing language proficiency in students and increasing the number of students in the program.

Shiratori presented charts that showed proficiency expectations for the students. With immersion beginning in kindergarten, students will hopefully reach an “intermediate low” level of proficiency in Spanish by the end of Grade 2, with an “intermediate high” score by Grade 5 for native speakers and Grade 8 for non-native speakers. By Grade 12, native speakers should be at “advanced high” and non-natives at “advanced middle.”

For Japanese, the goal expectations are not quite the same. A 12th grader in the program who is not a native speaker of Japanese is expected to reach a level of “intermediate high/pre-advanced.” Japanese is more difficult to learn than Spanish, said Pumilia, because Spanish “is in closer proximity to English.”

A problem with language proficiency beyond the El Marino and La Ballona (K-1) immersion programs is that students who opt to continue study of their immersion language beyond elementary school have to follow an available curriculum that does not continue in the same rigorous manner. At Culver City Middle School they can take a class that meets three times a week. At the high school level, they can take a sequential program in their language, typically entering at a second year or advanced (AP) level. Spanish immersion veterans can also take the “Nativos” immersion program.

While Pumilia’s response to Gourley’s query was that she believes immersion programs work, she admitted that CCUSD is planning to use FLAP monies to improve problems at the secondary level. One problem is that non-native speakers of Spanish seem to be intimidated by those who have more proficiency because they are native speakers. The two groups have different needs, which need to be addressed.

Pumilia emphasized that one goal is to make the language programs “more rigorous.” This might cause complaints that the programs are too difficult but on the other hand, studies have revealed that students who emerge from these programs are not always prepared for the requirements of the business world.

Board member Karlo Silbiger is a veteran of language immersion himself, having done the Spanish program as a student at CCUSD. While he appreciated that his parents had enrolled him in the program, he recalled a few issues that he had with it. He mentioned that his immersion program involved only one period a day (“ [It]does not work”); that it made students choose between language and an elective; and that there were unqualified teachers.

The Board will be agendizing the issue of language programs at a future meeting.

In other developments, the Board heard a comment from Jon Pearson, principal of Culver City Middle School, on a proposal that middle school students wear ID badges on lanyards. Pearson did not see any need for his students to do so. The cost of creating the badges and lanyards would be $2000.

Culver City High athletic director Jerry Chabola said that the ID badges that have been instituted at the high school are working quite well. There is even “a spirit of camaraderie” involved.

Board members agreed that while the badges have been incorporated successfully into the life of the high school, the use of badges should be left up to the individual schools and the Middle School obviously is doing all right without them.

The Board also received a brief visit from State Senator Curren Price, who honored La Ballona Elementary and its principal Christine Collins with an award for being a “California Distinguished School.”

“To be a distinguished school, a school must make significant gains in closing the achievement gap,” said Senator Price.

The September 28 meeting was the first held at the Mike Balkman Council Chamber at City Hall. The chamber was used at the suggestion of Karlo Silbiger, who, having himself experienced “sitting in the audience” on the wooden folding chairs at the Board’s meeting room, wanted to experiment with a more comfortable meeting environment. Judging by the comments received by Silbiger, the change of venue was most welcome and may become the regular meeting place for the School Board if arrangements can be worked out with City Hall.


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