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Baldwin Park school's immersion program shows promise for closing the achievement gap

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At an elementary school in Baldwin Park, children receiving a bilingual education appear to be vaulting over the achievement gap.

Foster elementary school sits adjacent to the 10 Freeway in Baldwin Park, a low-income pocket of the San Gabriel Valley. Nearly nine out of ten of the schools' students come from families that live at or below the poverty line.

And the vast majority are the children of Mexican immigrants or recent-arrivals from Mexico or South America themselves. The student body is 90 percent Latino.

Foster serves the kind of population researchers would expect to under-perform compared to middle- and higher-income, English-speaking students.

RELATED: Bilingual Learning: The science, options, and dilemma of dual language education

But Foster is a high performing elementary school. It's Academic Performance Index of 830 last year put it in the top 20 percent of the state's similarly ranked schools. And it's principal, Lorraine Perez, attributes those grades to one thing Foster does that most American schools don't: it teaches children in two languages.

"To just say, 'oh we want our students to be successful' but not know exactly how to do that becomes the problem," Perez said. 

Brain research is finding that learning more than one language creates a workout for a child's brain that pays dividends in all kinds of learning -- actually making kids smarter. And advocates for bilingual education argue that the method produces higher performing children.

"We know that when children are part of bilingual programs their academic ability [is] much higher than students that are in a monolingual background," said Jan Corea who runs the California Association of Bilingual Education. 

Magaly Lavadenz, a professor at Loyola Marymount, said bilingual proficiency exercises the brain's executive functions more. This increased workout for the young brain helps children "concentrate and focus more to get tasks accomplished." 

"Brain science is telling us that if you have greater cognitive functioning you’ll be smarter, you’ll be more proficient, you’ll be less distractible," she said.

RELATEDDoes dual-immersion learning pay off in better test scores?

Foster elementary is providing a sort of controlled study on the effect of a bilingual education. The school teaches half the students in a traditional, English-only curriculum and the other half in dual language immersion program.

When Principal Perez compares the test scores of the school's 6th graders, those in the dual language program outperform those in English-only classes by 20 to 30 percent. Of the students in the bilingual program, 86% were proficient in English last year, compared with 66% of those taught solely in English. Math scores were even better: 83% of the dual immersion students scored proficient, compared to 55% of those taught only in English. 

When comparing the test scores of Foster's 6th graders to those across the state, the dual language students did very well. 76% of the class was above the state average in Language Arts and  88% of the class was above the state average in Math.

"The students leave bilingual and biliterate. They not only speak the language, they can read and write it with a great deal of accuracy, " Perez said.

Foster's teachers constantly encourage students to think about how their fluency in two languages can open doors for what they plan to do in their lives, in college and in their future careers. 

The school's program appears to offer educators one way to tackle their hardest challenge: how to close the achievement gap between low-income students of color and their middle and upper income peers.

When parents enroll a child for kindergarten at Foster, they can choose whether the child will follow the traditional English-only path or the enter into the dual language immersion program. To enroll in the program later, children would have to demonstrate they have the proficiency level in Spanish to join the class. 

Children in the immersion program are taught in Spanish for 90 percent of the kindergarten day. In first grade, that decreases to 80 percent of the day in Spanish and 20 percent in English. The ratio continues to shift by 10 percent a year until 5th grade, when the students are learning 50-50 English and Spanish. Sixth grade is also 50-50 English and Spanish.

Perez said that even parents whose native tongue is Spanish and speak it at home still hesitate to chose dual language immersion. 

Part of the reason they worry is that the school's youngest students' test scores are far from stellar. School wide, only 36% of Foster's Dual Language third graders scored above the state's average in English and 39 percent in math. The test is given in English. By the third grade, Foster's dual language learners have had very little instruction in English.

Perez shows enrolling parents the test score differences that appear by the sixth grade to allay their biggest concern: that their children will learn not English.

Perez said there's no difference between the home lives or backgrounds of children in the bilingual and English only programs.  

“It is not a program that is only for students that we have identified as being high achievers,” Perez said.  

Foster's teachers are certainly engaging. Luz Velasquez leads soon-to-be graduating sixth graders in a research project to design, build and sell the next hottest toy to teach them geometry and math. She calls it "real world learning" and Velasquez says that whether the language she is teaching in is English or Spanish, the key is engaging students by making her classes relevant to their lives.

And despite the poverty, the neighborhood is well cared for. Homes and gardens are meticulously tended, cars give off a just-washed sheen.

Principals of nearby schools and districts in Monrovia and Arcadia are watching Foster's success. Monrovia dual language immersion teachers have come to Foster to observe and learn its methods.

Whether the test results can be replicated remains to be seen. Many other dual-language schools don't have an English only program with the same population. Others said they are too new to draw any conclusion from their test scores. But they believe the method will ultimately prove to be a powerful educational tool.

“All of the social science research, without question, says that if you start learning a second language at age 4, 5 & 6, you develop a switching mechanism in the brain that changes you and makes you smarter,” said Roger Lowenstein, who founded a dual language charter school in Lincoln Heights, the L.A. Leadership Academy.

"It allows you to acquire information --not just other languages-- but music, math, everything, so much more nimbly" he added. "You become a better student."

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