Bilingual is Better

I am lucky enough to be in a public school district with a 90/10 bilingual immersion program from K-5, and growing. The district currently offers a Mandarin and Spanish program, and is about to expand the Spanish program to a second elementary school. Because my daughter will be eligible for Kindergarten in Fall 2013, this Fall has been spent touring our public, charter, and private options. It’s been exhausting and eye-opening.

With preschool we were lucky enough to find the “perfect” place which met all our priorities — diverse, play-based, holistic, small, affordable, and in a natural setting. They even include Spanish throughout the day, although it is not a “bilingual” program per se. It’s run by teachers and a director who truly love the children they care for and clearly enjoy every day with them. It is really a place that our entire family loves.

For kindergarten, we have come to realize that we will have to pick which of our priorities we are willing to sacrifice and pick the “good enough” school rather than focus on finding the “perfect school.”

There is no private Spanish bilingual elementary school in our area, so even if we could afford a private school, we would have to sacrifice a bilingual education and for the most part, racial diversity. These schools have been the most progressive in terms of philosophy — they understand that children learn through play and while there are desks in these schools, student have ample time to move around, play, and spend time outdoors. These schools have lovely music, art and science programs. They tend to be on pretty campuses and include many enriching field trips.

There is no Spanish biliingual charter school in our area either. While there are two excellent, and fairly progressive charters nearby, again, bilingualism is not a part of their curriculum. We are entering these lotteries, knowing they are a long shot, but hoping that we might have one of these as an option.

There is, as I mentioned, a promising public Spanish biligingual immersion elementary in my district, San Rafael Elementary. I toured the school yesterday and left with mixed feelings. The school has some great things to offer:

  • A 90/10 bilingual immersion program starting in Kindergarten and moving to 50/50, with a 10% shift each year
  • A student body which includes many Latino families
  • An active and passionate PTA
  • A safe campus

However, as I spoke with parents and principal, I realized the limitations of this school. Unlike some other public schools in the district, which consistently offer a school library, art, music and gifted and talented programs, San Rafael is dependent on the PTA and individual parents to fund or volunteer art and music opportunities for the students. While some of the things they do, like bringing in a local art center to work with the children six weeks a year and a yoga teacher to work with some grades, these opportunities are dependent on having specific parents in the community who create these opportunities.

While walking to the local library is a fine alternative to the school library, as an English teacher, I would love for my kids to have their own librarian. I also noticed that while there were many Latino and Anglo students, there were very few Asian or African-American students, unlike at other public schools.

I realized that if we choose San Rafael, we will need to be sure to supplement what the school offers with extracurricular art, music and enrichment activities. This is not a big deal, but knowing that those things are offered at other schools is probably the reason why there is not a huge waiting list at San Rafael.

What was absolutely equivalent between San Rafael and other schools in the district was the philosophy and method of teaching — traditional, seated at desks and using workbooks, starting in kindergarten. The traditional approach is one that I survived as a child, so obviously it can be fine. The children there seemed happy enough, but it’s not what I envision for the next 13 years of Marisol’s education.

Despite my concerns about what San Rafael lacked there is something I keep coming back to: in each class, children of all races where communicating in Spanish, Spanglish, and a little English. Clearly, these children are successfully learning how to think and communicate en español.  This is a skill which will serve them their entire lives.

While we try to speak Spanish at home, and our girls understand most spoken Spanish, they are not bilingual. If we want them to be bilingual, I think San Rafael is our only option.

So what matters most — things like pedagogy, art, music, a library, and the other things I did not love at San Rafael or a bilingual program?

I don’t know. Our family is talking and thinking and talking some more. I’m sure many of you can relate to trying to pick the best of non-ideal options for your child and the anxiety about making the wrong choice. How is your kindergarten or school search going?

{photo by  bloomsberries}

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