Utah junior high schools integrate language immersion students

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Sadie Anderson
Mueller Park Junior High is among the first Utah secondary education schools to integrate Chinese immersion students into its classrooms. (Sadie Anderson)

This story pairs with “Inside the Chinese immersion classroom

Alana Holzer didn’t understand a word her teachers said on the first day of kindergarten. She stared in confusion as her teachers refused to answer her or any other students in her class using any language but Chinese. Now, eight years later and in seventh grade, Alana and her fellow Chinese immersion students are capable of discussing more complicated topics in their second language.

According to a case study by Yuan Cao of the Dominican University of California, the total immersion model was first implemented in 1965 in Canada. The study shows one of the most popular ways to approach immersion programs is what’s known as the 50-50 structure: students receive 50 percent of their daily instruction in their native language and 50 percent in their designated immersion language.

It is this 50-50 structure Alana and students across Utah have experienced since entering the immersion program in elementary school, an immersion model they cannot continue once reaching junior high.

Mueller Park Junior High principal Deanne Kapetanov said immersion students are given the option of taking two electives to continue their Chinese language education: an intense language course and a culture and media course. She said the attrition rate rises once the students reach junior high school, but the majority of the students continue with their immersion education and adjust well.

On the other hand, Alana, now a seventh grader at Mueller Park Junior High in the Chinese immersion program, said many students who dropped out of the elementary school immersion program are now taking the Chinese immersion level classes, favoring the two class period schedule over the 50-50 structure.

Students aren’t the only ones adjusting to the change. Kapetonov said both administrators and counselors had to attend training meetings to prepare for the bilingual students. These trainings instructed educators in the benefits of language immersion and helped the schools prepare for the influx of different language programs being integrated over the next few years.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding and keeping qualified teachers,” Kapetanov said. She said the Davis County School District, however, is good at supporting immersion schools in finding the educators needed to keep the program going.

Sadie Anderson
Jamie Holzer and her children Alana, Callee, T.J. and Sadie all take part in the Chinese immersion program in the Davis County School District. (Sadie Anderson)

Alana’s mother, Jamie Holzer, is an English kindergarten teacher at Muir Elementary School. She said holding onto language teachers is just as difficult at the elementary level. The majority of the Chinese teachers are brought in from the Hanban Institute in China, she said, while others are brought in from Taiwan or are Utah natives who served Chinese-speaking missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But it is the cultural differences between the Chinese teachers and American students that make it hard for the younger children and can cause some behavioral issues in the classroom, according to Jamie Holzer.

She said many Chinese teachers come to Utah to expand their own learning and education. Their difficulty balancing packed schedules or dealing with expired visas force them to resign more often than the behavior of their immersion students.

With the growth of language immersion across the state, some have raised questions about whether immersion hurts students’ broader education. Jill Talbot, an English teacher at Mueller Park Junior High, said the immersion program students are at the expected reading level, but lack writing skills.

“They all struggle to write five-paragraph essays and simple sentence structure,” Talbot said, “whereas their counterparts are doing much better with writing and grammar skills.”

Talbot said she doesn’t know how instructors teach those English writing skills in a different language, especially when English isn’t a student’s native language.

The Utah State Board of Education has addressed these questions by posting the benefits of foreign language immersion education on its website. These benefits include proficiency in the immersion language, improved performance on standardized testing, enhanced cognitive skills, increased cultural sensitivity and the longterm benefits of using the skill in a global setting later in life.

Source: Utah State Board of Education (Graphic by Sadie Anderson)

“I’ve seen higher DIBELS testing scores in my classroom from the students participating in the immersion program,” Jamie Holzer said, referring to the standardized test. It is for these benefits and others she decided to place all four of her children in the Chinese immersion program.

Kapetanov said she has witnessed many benefits of the immersion program as a principal.

“Students are great beneficiaries of the immersion program,” she said. “Students become global citizens in addition to becoming bilingual.”

To get a child into the immersion program, parents must first fill out an application which then puts them on a waiting list. Jamie Holzer said she then checked in with the participating school regularly to see if there were any program openings. She said it was slightly easier to get her children into the program because schools favored immersing students who had siblings already participating in the program.

Now, however, the demand is so large that schools are more inclined to base decisions on applications and the order they in which they are submitted.

As the students continue through junior high and move on to the high school level, Jamie Holzer said students will be required to drive between high schools to attend their specific language classes across the district. These classes will be more focused on integrating the Chinese students’ skills into real world and business situations.

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