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

Its popularity notwithstanding, language immersion’s merits are often better understood over time. One of the problems with using this model in public schools, particularly in the early years, is that students still must take English-language standardized tests—and be measured against peers who are specifically taught to succeed on those tests. GVA students, for example, have achieved modest CSAP results since the school’s 2007 founding. (DLS third-graders took their first CSAPs this past spring.) “Some people worry about the idea of no English for a few years,” says Amy Anderson, associate commissioner of innovation, choice, and engagement at the Colorado Department of Education. “People will start paying more attention if CSAP scores back it up.”

Myriam Met, former director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, and one of the country’s leading experts on immersion, acknowledges the numbers can present a mixed picture. “Evidence has shown that full immersion students’ test scores do tend to lag behind their peers’ until English language and literacy are introduced,” she says. “But then they tend to catch up and, in many cases, pull ahead.” Indeed, a 2007 study from the Connecticut Department of Education found that students who had received long-term instruction in foreign languages scored considerably higher on both the verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and other studies have correlated bilingual proficiency with higher scores on a variety of standardized aptitude tests.

Proponents of language immersion don’t need test scores to validate the programs’ success. DLS fielded more than three applicants for every open desk this spring and was the most sought-after kindergarten program in the 2012-13 Denver Public Schools choice lottery process. It has drawn more than 70 students from private schools, an unheard-of number for a public institution. Laura Montoya, a mother of three DLS students, says she and her husband, who’s from Colombia, felt like they were giving their children “a gift” by enrolling them in an immersion school. “I think it opens their eyes culturally as wide as they can be opened. They’re color-blind,” she says. “DLS is truly a little United Nations in the middle of Denver, which is otherwise pretty homogenous.”

DLS also adds a layer of diversity with its instructors. The school employs five Chinese teaching assistants, two of who were college professors before coming to Denver. DLS pays a portion of their salaries; the rest, including a $3,000 monthly living stipend, is covered by an arm of the Chinese government whose goal is to spread the Chinese language to foreign lands—including, as it happens, to its prime competitor among global superpowers. France’s government also gives about $230,000 in tuition assistance to DMIS (and evaluates it annually since the school follows a French curriculum), and Spain’s Ministry of Education subsidizes GVA. Naturally, the U.S. government also chips in. DLS and GVA recently received $1.4 million multiyear grants from the Department of Education’s Foreign Language Assistance Program, which gets some of its funds from the Department of Defense.

As he continues the tour of DLS, Weber says he knows this collision of American and foreign cultures is a delicate subject. “We’ve had a couple of people ask us if we educate students on Mao; do they have The Little Red Book; are we indoctrinating them into communism?” he says. (They don’t, and they aren’t.) And yet, DLS is a place where kids learn Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech in Spanish, hear about the Pilgrims in Mandarin Chinese, and stage a lavish show to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

To Weber, concerns about imperialism are understandable but misplaced. He cites the experience of a DLS first-grade Chinese teaching assistant named Luo Yun as a more meaningful example of the school’s reach and results. Luo is 36 and in his first of two years at DLS. He taught English literature for 12 years at a university in China before being chosen by the Chinese education ministry, on his second try, to teach in Denver. So far, he’s been surprised and impressed by what he’s seen from his students, and he offers compelling testimony about the effects language immersion can have. “I’m actually a little amazed by the progress the kids have made,” Luo says. “They use what they’ve learned to express themselves in daily life almost immediately.”