Monday, December 18, 2006

US Schools - Speaking in Tongues - New Film Promotes Multilingualism in San Francisco

The excellent SF Schools Blog points us towards a new NY Times article on the growth of Mandarin language programs in US Schools. Besides serving the needs of newcomer immigrant students, dual language immersion programs can help districts like San Francisco and other gateway urban school districts to attract middle class and white families back into urban schools with the attraction of learning other languages. From 1968-78 nearly 30,000 white and middle class students [about 1/3 of the SF student population] fled the district in the midst of the civil rights, equity and desegregation efforts of that era. We have never fully recovered from the 'white flight' of that period. Perhaps multilingual and other high quality 'magnet' programs may help bring back the families that have abandoned the urban public schools.
Speaking in Tongues!
On a similar note, I am excited about an upcoming film about multilingualism in San Francisco Schools by local independent filmmakers extraordinaire Marcia Jarmel (director, producer, writer) and Ken Schneider (co-producer, editor) who produce films that explore contemporary social issues through intimate character stories. Their award-winning films have been broadcast around the world and have screened at museums, film festivals, schools, universities, public libraries, and for community groups.

KQED will be hosting a previewing of the film in January. I hope it hits the theaters soon as well. More info -

Speaking in Tongues 60 MINUTES, COLOR, DVD & VHS
Alone among the educated world, the U.S. remains resolutely monolingual, despite how decidedly international our world has become. The idea of “American exceptionalism” is in vogue, Congress is once again considering “official English” legislation similar to that already passed in 22 states, and the Education Department’s No Child Left Behind initiative effectively discourages second language learning. Yet, at the same time, the Department of Defense is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a K-16 pipeline developing fluency in languages deemed “strategic” and business leaders clamor for bilingual U.S. citizens to engage in the global economy. Children around the world have for decades learned a second and even third language as part of their schooling. In the “flattening world“ described by the writer Thomas Friedman, bilingualism is a survival tool. But are we ready?
Speaking in Tongues documents the experience of one city grappling with the challenge. Amidst the widespread perception that bilingual education, intended as a transitional program, has failed, San Francisco school board will consider a measure to offer language immersion education to all public school students. Unlike bilingual education classrooms, immersion students come from a spectrum of language backgrounds—English learners, native English speakers, and “heritage language learners” reclaiming a family language lost through assimilation. All study at least half of their regular school subjects in a non-English language—in our story Mandarin, Cantonese, or Spanish. As a bonus, every student is exposed to different worldviews, customs, and approaches to problem solving. Data confirm the success of this approach: native English speakers join much of the rest of the world in becoming bilingual, and English language learners do better, have more positive attitudes about school, and are more likely to graduate from high school than their peers in English only classrooms.
Consider the possibilities presented by Alice Fong Yu K-8, the nation’s first public Chinese immersion school. The school’s motto, “Bridging Cultures, Building Community” alludes to both the city and the globe. Immersed in Chinese language and culture, K-3 students study 85 percent of their lessons – math, science, physical education, and social studies-– in Cantonese. By 3rd grade they are fluent. In middle school they add Mandarin as a third language. They also develop English and math skills that place them first among the city’s 72 elementary schools on statewide mandatory testing. By the end of 8th grade they are trilingual and tri-literate, enough to participate in a cultural exchange program where they will attend school and live with a family in Beijing. Six years ago the school was challenged to reach full enrollment. This year 400 parents competed for a mere 28 slots in the entering kindergarten class.
Across the city, in a neighborhood known as much for its projects as its stunning Bay views, Starr King Elementary opened its doors this September to the city’s first Mandarin immersion kindergarten. Asian and white students cross the city to join African American and Latino children from the neighborhood. If 30 years of research is correct, and learning in two languages really does stimulate brain circuitry and enhance academic success for all students regardless of socioeconomics, native language, or cognitive ability, the school can expect its achievement to climb.
Not far away, in the city’s Latino Mission District, Buena Vista Elementary has been educating a mix of native Spanish and English speakers for over twenty years. Through the eyes of a 5th grader and her family we’ll explore what happens when English learners attend a school that values their native language as much as English. The fact that both Spanish and English speaking students here test at grade level or above in both languages—a skill that eludes many Americans in English alone—gives hope that the city might address its shocking 50% drop out rate for Latino students.
Speaking in Tongues is an intimate glimpse into a community squaring the challenges of public education with the needs of a changing culture. As we consider the experiences of parents, advocates for and against, and students engaged in this experiment, we come to see what's at stake—for those involved and for our nation. Will San Francisco’s story be a national model or a cautionary tale? Speaking in Tongues will be available as a DVD toolkit that includes an hour-long public television documentary, a shorter version for education and community engagement, and study guides to support these uses.
Join Patchwork's e-mail list, to keep informed of the film's progress.

More info - Speaking in Tongues

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