We Are The World

Language immersion schools have become wildly popular in Colorado and nationwide. But are they really as great as advertised?

August 2012

On a sunny January morning in East Denver, Brian Weber, head of the Denver Language School (DLS), greets parents by first name as they pull up to the curb. He chitchats for a few moments while the kids head to the playground to romp around before classes start. The scene seems normal enough for an American elementary school. That is, until a foreign twang catches your ear, and you realize the first-graders clambering around the jungle gym—all of them Caucasian—are talking to each other in Mandarin Chinese.

At DLS, a public charter school with 450 students ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade, these conversations happen every day. The school’s language immersion curriculum is arguably the fastest-growing foreign-language education model in America—and as it turns out, an elaborate study in what some might call peaceful imperialism. As its name implies, language immersion students don’t just learn a foreign language; they learn every subject in a foreign language, starting as young as preschool. Bilingualism has been shown to enhance brain development in young kids, helping them become more creative, better problem-solvers, and more adept at multitasking. These qualities, along with the exposure language immersion gives kids to other cultures, have made it madly popular with parents: DLS received 500 applications for 250 spots when it opened in 2010. “I think it’s the most awesome thing in the world,” says Lori Pace, parent of a DLS third-grader. “It’s a unique and rewarding opportunity, and the fact that DLS is a public charter school is an added benefit.”

Language immersion schools have also created a situation in which foreign governments partially subsidize America’s public education system—and probably the only scenario wherein entities such as the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense donate millions of dollars to elementary schools. According to Weber and other proponents, language immersion produces smarter kids with broader worldviews. However, given the still-evolving performance of these students on English-language standardized tests, it also makes some wonder if American kids should really be spending all day learning the three Rs in a foreign tongue.

Language immersion was initiated in 1965 by English-speaking Canadian parents who wanted their kids to learn French. Inspired by Canada’s success, UCLA professor Russell Campbell launched America’s first immersion program in Culver City, California, in 1971; the model has recently exploded in popularity thanks to the National Security Language Initiative, which was launched by President George W. Bush in 2006 to expand America’s pool of future translators and diplomats. You’ll find these schools scattered from Oregon to Washington, D.C., and the model is spreading fast in unlikely places. For instance, by 2013, Utah will have 78 dual-immersion schools (which split teaching between English and a foreign language), with a goal of increasing that number to 100 by 2014.

There are four full immersion schools in Colorado that teach every core subject in the target language. All are located on the Front Range: DLS (East Denver) and Aurora’s Global Village Academy (GVA) are public, while Denver Montclair International School (DMIS) in Lowry and University Hills’ Colorado International School are private. Among the four schools, kids can learn in German, French, Spanish, Farsi, or Chinese.

When Weber and two Stapleton moms founded DLS, then a K­–2 school, in 2010, it became the first and only Denver public school to offer full immersion. Weber, a former Rocky Mountain News education reporter and vice president of the Stapleton Foundation, which contributed $300,000 to the launch of DLS, never intended to run the school. He’s fluent in neither of the school’s two languages, Chinese and Spanish; he simply believes in the model. “Immersion challenges your brain more—makes it work harder,” says Weber, who stepped away from day-to-day operations in March to focus on strategic development.

Strolling through the halls, he laments the way demand for language immersion in Colorado is overwhelming supply. The average class size at DLS is large—27 kids—but a teaching assistant in every room helps keep things manageable. Inside one DLS kindergarten classroom, the language immersion methods are on display. A girl gets frustrated and starts rambling in English only to be answered in Spanish by her teacher, who gestures with her hands to help convey what she’s saying. Next door in a first-grade Mandarin room, students work on pronunciation in Pinyin, an English alphabet liaison language, by smacking the Chinese words’ English equivalents on the wall with a fly swatter. The Chinese alphabet has between 2,000 and 5,000 characters, and Weber says a couple of his third-graders are getting close to knowing them all. Surely they must be native speakers? “No,” he says. “We’ve got little blond-haired, blue-eyed white girls who win Chinese speaking contests.”