District to gauge interest in language-immersion program

School officials consider teaching Spanish, Mandarin to kindergarteners, first-graders

BURLINGAME — As second-language fluency becomes a more common job requirement, the Burlingame School District says even its youngest pupils need to hone their bilingual skills.

The district wants to launch a language-immersion program at one or more of the four elementary schools in the district by next school year. But officials need to secure firm commitments from parents before moving forward with the plans.

Language immersion is an educational model already used in many California schools. It involves teaching the regular, state-mandated curriculum almost entirely in the non-English, “target” language, in order to make the students fully bilingual by fifth grade.

Spanish was an obvious choice, given the high percentage of Spanish-speaking Californians, Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said. Mandarin is being considered as a strong contender as well, given the growing business relationships between China and the United States.

Immersion would take place in kindergarten and first-grade classes. Da Marto said he was not sure how many classes would be language-immersed, noting that it depends on the show of support from district parents.

“All the research shows that you don’t want to start later than first grade [with language immersion], and even then, that’s a stretch,” Da Marto said. “The idea is that you start when they’re young so the students get used to hearing, thinking and writing in their second language.”

Though discussions on the issue began nearly four years ago, cloudy budget outlooks continually forced the program to the back burner. The district made budget cuts for four years, starting in 2000, Da Marto said.

Da Marto said no cost estimates have been prepared yet, but startup costs will include securing the materials needed for bilingual study. Ideally, ongoing operational costs, including new teachers, would be funded entirely by the state, which provides between $6,000 and $7,000 per student each year in district funding, Da Marto said.

School board member Liz Gindraux said the program already has a large contingent of parents behind it.

“It’s pretty safe to say there is strong support from the school board,” Gindraux said.

The San Mateo-Foster City School District already has an immersion program at Fiesta Gardens International School that serves all of its nearly 400 students, school board member Lory Lorimer Lawson said. Lawson, whose children attended Fiesta Gardens and still speak fluent Spanish, said the district is also considering adding Mandarin to its immersion curriculum.

An information night, featuring teachers and families who have participated in other immersion programs, starts at 6 p.m. tonight in the Burlingame School District offices, located at 1825 Trousdale Drive.

tramroop@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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