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The Seattle School District Is Reviewing Its Language Immersion Programs

Jennifer Wing
Homework from the Japanese immersion program at John Stanford International School. The Seattle School District is inthe process of reviewing its bilingual programs.


Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish: These are the languages hundreds of students are learning in the Seattle School District.

But funding is tight, which means the district is taking a hard look at its foreign language immersion programs. The district is wondering if these programs should be scaled back, expanded, or left as they are.

There are five elementary immersion schools in Seattle. Students can choose to continue their language studies in middle and high school.

In the elementary grades, children spend half their day learning subjects such as math or science in a foreign language, and the other half of the day in English.

These schools are very popular, but they have all grown organically without any uniformity, essentially reinventing the wheel each time.  With this in mind, the district wants to take a second look at them.

“Do we expand? Do we contract? Do we want to, perhaps, bring more of the programs into a consistent model that is more replicable too, and not just rely on a specific group of teachers who happen to develop materials and resources that are used in one school at this particular time,”  said Michelle Aoki, who oversees the dual-language programs for the district.

Aoki would like to craft a standard model for its immersion programs. She argues this would make it easier to share curriculum materials and best teaching practices.

A task force is holding meetings around the city to hear what families have to say. Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland will use a report from the task force as guide as he looks at the possibility of making changes to immersion programs. Any changes that are made would go into effect starting in the 2017-2018 school year.

Michelle Aoki predicts that, someday, bilingual education will transition from being viewed as a novel option to a necessary requirement.

“At some point, we’ll understand that monolingualism is the new illiteracy — that it’s a crime to create an educational system that leaves most of the students mono-lingual,” said Aoki. “We really need to be offering the opportunity to be bilingual [and] multilingual to every student.”

This is a stance the Highline School District, just south of Seattle, is taking. Highline’s goal is that by 2026, all graduating students will bilingual and biliterate.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.