Making French elementary


Using red chips, the 22 children in Emilie Seck's kindergarten class are learning the concept of more and less. Only instead of more and less, they're using the words plus and moins.

Seck is conducting the lesson in French.

These pupils at Wellwood International Elementary School in Pikesville - native English speakers except for one boy who speaks Japanese - are enrolled in the school's language immersion program, receiving half their daily instruction in French.

The program, one of a handful in Maryland, is persevering despite the intense pressure schools face under the No Child Left Behind Act to produce high scores on tests in English. Wellwood's French immersion pupils spend an hour less on reading in English each day than their peers who are not in the program.

But, teachers and parents say, children graduate from fifth grade bilingual or close to it. And, they add, their English development does not suffer.

Research has long shown that childhood is the best time to learn a second language. Waiting to introduce a second language until middle school or high school - as is normally the case in the United States - makes it much harder for students to become bilingual.

"My second-graders can run circles around second-year high school French students," said Kevin-Douglas Olive, a French immersion teacher at Wellwood and the school's French content leader.

Wellwood's immersion program is one of at least 590 nationally, according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.

Of those, at least 305 programs are "two-way," in which about half the children are native speakers of the immersion language - usually Spanish - and half are native English speakers.

The remainder are "one-way," meaning all children are learning the immersion language. Some one-way programs teach part of the day in the immersion language, as is the case at Wellwood.

"Total immersion" programs, including a handful in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, teach the entire day in the immersion language in the lower grades, gradually introducing English as children get older.

Immersion teachers say the only such programs in Maryland are those in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. A program in Anne Arundel County is being phased out for lack of money.

Across the country, immersion programs are under pressure to spend more class time speaking English to boost test scores.

National studies have shown immersion pupils lagging slightly behind their peers on English tests in the early grades, but performing as well or better by fifth grade and - for those who continue in immersion programs past fifth grade - significantly better in middle school.

Wellwood PTA President Betsy Offermann, who has three children enrolled in the program, said her children are evidence of that: First-grade teachers for both her son and daughter said they were behind in learning to read in English.

Now in third and fifth grade, they're both in gifted-and-talented English reading classes.

Wellwood Principal William S. Burke did not have test scores broken down for Wellwood's immersion pupils, but he said they seem to perform as well as their peers in all grades.

Nevertheless, Wellwood has started giving immersion pupils math unit tests in English, although their math instruction is in French. One difficulty: The French use decimal points where Americans use commas, and vice versa.

Tara W. Fortune, the immersion projects coordinator for the University of Minnesota's language acquisition center, said the success of immersion programs depends upon students spending enough time in the immersion language.

"They have to guard against chipping away at instructional time in the immersion language to accommodate the testing mania," Fortune said.

Wellwood, one of Baltimore County's most ethnically diverse schools, with pupils from more than 30 countries, began its immersion program 12 years ago. The principal at the time, Janice M. Lane, saw the advantage the school's immigrant pupils had growing up bilingual. The idea was to give native English speakers a similar opportunity, said Burke, then a teacher at the school.

Lane interviewed potential French and Spanish teachers, Burke said. More impressed with the French teachers, she decided on French immersion.

Today, about 120 of Wellwood's 555 pupils, or one class per grade, are enrolled in the immersion program, for which children are selected by lottery. They receive 2 1/2 hours of French instruction daily, covering math, reading and grammar.

This fall, Olive asked the school board to revisit how the program conducts admissions. He said he would like to see parents get more information before they choose the program, in the hopes that more will stick with it through middle school. (Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in Pikesville offers a continuation immersion program for Wellwood pupils.)

A decision to modify admissions criteria would come from Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who said through a spokesman that his staff would need to look closely at the matter.

Olive said many parents come in devoted to the immersion programs, but that some enroll their children simply so they can attend Wellwood instead of their neighborhood school.

The fourth-grade class has 15 pupils, at least 10 fewer than it had when the children were in kindergarten.

Because of the progression of the language classes, the program cannot admit new children after first grade, except those who already speak French.

Also, staying in an immersion program for at least four years is important for a child's cognitive development, Fortune said.

Offermann, the PTA president, said parents should be required to attend an informational meeting before enrolling their children.

In Seck's kindergarten class, three parents observing the lesson on more and less said they are happy with their decision.

"I'm impressed with the way he's able to catch on really fast," said Rosalind Cromwell of her 5-year-old son, Dante. "He loves it. He's teaching his friends and his cousin."

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