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Language Immersion Prototype Stumbling

In a language immersion class at Potomac Elementary, Anais Becker, left, and Gia Chatterjee learn about the Chinese New Year celebration.
In a language immersion class at Potomac Elementary, Anais Becker, left, and Gia Chatterjee learn about the Chinese New Year celebration. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

In September 1996, Montgomery County started what it promoted as the first Mandarin Chinese immersion program for elementary students in the country. The program at Potomac Elementary School became a national model, and acclaim and fame followed.

Today, the original class of first-graders are seniors preparing for college. Many continued to study Chinese in middle and high school, but most dropped out in recent years -- a handful as late as this fall -- citing confusion in the curriculum and difficulties with the instructor. Now, just three of the first 22 students continue to study Chinese at the cluster's high school.

Montgomery officials say attrition is expected in any new program. But parents and students say there are problems with how the immersion classes are taught. They say there is inadequate coordination among grades and uneven assessment systems, problems that could have been avoided. More important, they say, officials are doing little to remedy the problems for the hundreds of younger students of Chinese.

"It is really disappointing how this has been handled," said 17-year-old senior Meghan Croner, who started in the program at Potomac Elementary as a first-grader and stuck with Chinese until September, when she dropped her Advanced Placement Chinese class. She said she had no choice: the curriculum had changed too much, and she couldn't understand the teacher's grading methods.

"I am now applying to colleges and saying I want to major in Chinese," said Croner, who is being tutored privately in Chinese. "They are going to see I took Chinese all through elementary school, middle school and all through high school until I dropped AP. They won't know it wasn't something I wanted to do at all."

Immersion programs started more than 30 years ago, most focusing on Spanish. According to the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics, three public schools had one immersion class each in 1971. Last year, there were 263 in 83 schools.

The classes "immerse" students in a language through academic subjects, using a variety of instructional techniques rather than traditional methods that emphasize vocabulary and grammar and often fail to produce proficiency.

But a range of problems in Montgomery's Chinese classes have hampered some students' ability to learn. Critics say there is a lack of resources and appropriate materials, poor coordination among grade levels and inadequate teacher development. There's even disagreement among educators on what immersion is.

"Immersion can mean many things to different people in the field," said Elena Izquierdo, vice president of the District-based nonprofit National Association for Bilingual Education and a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "For some, immersion is total immersion, for others it is partial, and some people call one class in foreign language an immersion class."

It is also important to define the goal of each program; all are not the same, Izquierdo said. Some aim for complete reading, writing and oral proficiency in a foreign language; others might be geared to gaining conversational skills.

At first, the Chinese immersion students at Potomac were "a school within a school," sticking together from kindergarten through fifth grade. Principal Linda Goldberg changed the format when she arrived in 2002, believing that students learning Chinese needed more interaction with the other students.

Today, 137 students at Potomac, from kindergarten to fifth grade, take math and science in Chinese and other subjects in English, she said.

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