Sunday, January 25, 2009

New Multilingual Master Plan by San Francisco Public Schools

Reported by Elizabeth Weise
Mandarin Immersion Parents Council
Jan. 23, 2009

Imagine San Francisco with a public French immersion school. A public Russian immersion school. Spanish and Chinese immersion schools in each quadrant of the City, with enough seats for all comers.
Imagine every elementary school in the district offering at least 30 minutes per day of a second language to every student whose family chooses it.
Imagine strong middle and high school language programs feeding from those immersion elementary schools, so that San Francisco students will routinely pass AP literature and language tests in other languages with a minimum score of 4. Imagine kids coming out of general ed programs with a solid grounding in a second language, even if they weren’t in immersion.
When today’s 2-and 3-year-olds are ready to enter school, it may not be a dream but reality. Those goals, and more, are part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Multilingual Master Plan, a draft of which was presented to the Blue Ribbon Task Force last month.
It comes in part from the School Board’s resolution that “preparing students for our world of multilingualism and multiculturism has become an integral and indispensable part of the educational process,” passed on Dec. 12, 2006.
In breathtaking boldness, the plan, already endorsed by school Superintendent Carlos Garcia, envisions a San Francisco school system that builds on the City’s century-old history as a cosmopolitan, polyglot culture and international gateway.
“We’re trying to prepare all San Francisco Unified School District students to become global citizens,” says Laurie Olsen, a well-known educational consultant who is working closely with SFUSD staff to craft the Master Plan.

Already popular
The idea of focusing on language comes from two facts about the San Francisco Public Schools:
- Half of the districts students enter school already speaking another language, generally Spanish or Chinese.
- Immersion programs are hugely popular.
This gives San Francisco a head start in the language game, and a base of students who by middle school will move smoothly between two languages. Those existing language abilities, in 49% of students, will allow the District to merge heritage learners and those from the bilingual programs with students coming from immersion.
“The pathways are going to merge in middle school, because we believe they’ll have the same levels of language proficiency. Out of a middle school program they’ll be doing high-level academic work in that target language,” said Margaret Peterson
the new program administrator for the District’s World Language / Multilingual Education department.
And there’s already a huge hunger for such programs. Parents crowd the district’s eight public Spanish immersion elementary schools, two Cantonese immersion, two Mandarin immersion and one Korean immersion. All told, 13 of the City’s 72 elementary schools offer language immersion, and still there are waiting lists.
“If everybody knew they could get a slot in immersion, that would be huge for enrollment and for people being excited about the district,” says Tammy Radmer, founder of San Francisco Advocates for Multilingual Excellent, a group of parents with children in immersion programs in the public schools.
“I don’t know how many parents I’ve talked to who are stressed out because they know they probably won’t get into immersion. So people are pessimistic even enrolling,” she says.
When parents can’t get languages in the city’s schools, they leave the system. San Francisco is home to numerous private language immersion schools, including two French, one Mandarin, at least one Russian as well as Chinese, Scandinavian, Italian and German immersion preschools.
When they can, they stay. A full quarter of parents in the city’s two Mandarin immersion schools say they would have gone private or left the district entirely had they not had an immersion alternative. With it, they stayed and are contributing to the growing vibrancy and excitement of one of the nation’s most forward-thinking school districts.
But however popular languages are, currently 27 elementary schools have no language program outside of English. So the District plans to build on this vast base of parental interest to create a school system that prepares all students “to become global citizens in a multilingual world,” in the words of the original Blue Ribbon Task Force report presented to the School Board in April of 2008.
This would put San Francisco schools on par with many in Europe, where competency and fluency in second and even third languages isn’t considered surprising but merely expected in a world where speaking more than one language is presumed.

Not Just Immersion
The plan isn’t all about immersion. While a choice of immersion programs would be available in every quadrant of the city, every school in the district would have at least one language program available in addition to standard academic English.
That would mean daily 30 minute classes in the target language, allowing all students in the system who follow the program through until 12th grade to attain a basic level of proficiency by graduation, something rarely attained in most schools nationwide.
“The programs won’t be mandatory,” says Peterson.
“It’s about access, it’s not about a mandate or a requirement.”
“The district will work closely with administrators and teachers to make sure they can contribute their know-how and experience to building powerful programs,” says Francisca Sanchez, the Associate Superintendent.

German, anyone? Arabic?
And the languages don’t have to be Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese, says Peterson. “The district is very open to additional languages. We’re going to start where there’s some demand, where parents are saying they want it, or teachers and principals are interested.”
For parents whose kids aren’t in those programs, especially parents whose children aren’t yet in school, the possibilities are tantalizing. Already, the director of an Italian immersion preschool in San Francisco has contacted the district about beginning an Italian program. Given the numerous, well-organized language groups in the city, the possibilities seem endless for parents who begin organizing now.
It’s been done before, recently. The District’s two now over-subscribed Mandarin immersion schools, which currently have 140 students and will fill up at 360 students in 2011, were created by committed parents approaching the district just six years ago, in 2003.
Parents or groups that are interested in a specific language should contact Maria Martinez at

But how?
In a time of budgetary constraints, implementing such an ambitious plan seems difficult in the extreme. Peterson says the idea is to being implementing it in already existing language programs with the aid of the committed parent populations already in place, “building from the bottom up to strengthen existing programs.”
That will include working on the Middle and High School portion of immersion programs, creating them in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as broadening the programs in place for Spanish.
It will also mean bringing together bilingual, heritage speakers and immersion program students at Middle School, when their language abilities should be nearly equal. This will create a broader pool of students (especially in Cantonese and Mandarin) at designated schools making class creation easier.
The plan is ambitious and the District realizes that it can’t create such a broad plan out of thin air. One thing it has going for it is that it’s teacher population is already linguistically rich, something not every school district can say. But even so, the District plans to begin working with university teaching programs across the state to begin a pipeline that will create the teachers it will need.
The students will feed back into those same universities. In middle school and high school they will take actual courses in the language they learned in elementary school, so social studies taught in Spanish or math taught in Chinese, plus an additional language arts class in that language.
That’s crucial to raising students’ abilities in the language through increasingly sophisticated course material. It pays off. In the University of Oregon and at UC Berkeley, Chinese programs have had to add two grade levels to their Chinese course work, because students coming out of immersion schools were so advanced they ran out of courses to take.
But how to pay for it? Clearly, there’s going to be a lot less money going to California public schools in the coming years. The District hopes that community and civic partnerships can be formed around languages, schools and programs. That could mean money from the federal government, which pays to support languages it considers crucial (Chinese, Arabic, Russian, etc), money from China, which supports Mandarin studies worldwide, and money from community groups, parents and foundations.
To frustrated Spanish immersion parents whose children often find no suitable classes when they get to middle school, such ambitious planning might seem premature. But the District sees plans to focus first on those existing programs, to strengthen them and build them up as showcases that can be used to spin off new programs as the plan is implemented.

Next steps
Over the next two months the District plans to present its plan to interested parent groups, including Parents for Public Schools (PPS), San Francisco Advocates for Multilingual Excellent (SF AME), District English Learners Advisory Council (DELAC), Chinese for Affirmative Action, Bilingual Community Council (BCC), the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council and the San Francisco chapter of the California Association of Bilingual Educators (SF-ABE) to name a few.
The student assignment redesign team is working closely with Multilingual Education /World Language and English Learners Support Services to create a system that takes into account language pathways.
One goal is to ensure that once a student begins in a given language, they will have the opportunity to continue in it through high school. For example, “A kid who started in Japanese gets priority placement to a middle school with Japanese,” said Olsen.
This is all meant to happen quickly. The District hopes to have gotten input from parent and other groups by April, so that during the 2009-2010 school year schools can plan and by 2010-2011 “we’ll begin to see implementation,” said Peterson.
The goal is that by 2023 “all schools will have this continuous pathway in place,” she says. That would mean that two- and three-year olds in San Francisco today would graduate from a school system that presumes languages are crucial to a 21st century life.
But some things will happen more quickly. For example, Peterson wants to emphasize the importance of students who already speak two languages, and will present a plan to the Board of Education to award Seals of Biliteracy for students graduating with those skills as early as the end of this year.
There’s certainly buy-in at the top. When the plan was presented to school superintendent Carlos Garcia, his reaction was “This is a dream come true,” said Peterson.


  1. This is the one area where SFUSD outshines all but a handful of independent schools in the Bay Area.

    The one caveat: FLES programs and approaches need serious improvement in terms of curriculum development and teacher training. Otherwise, it is time wasted and parents will be disappointed with the results.

    How many of us studied a foreign language for 3-4 years and still can't speak it?

    I know many parents were saddened this year to discover that despite their hiring Spanish speaking nannies or enrolling their infants and preschoolers in Spanish-language enrichment programs or immersion preschools, their kids scored poorly in the SFUSD language assessments for immersion. Even after several years -- and starting at a very young age -- these kids were NOT fluent.

  2. I like it! Although I am only responding to the details in this summary, this plan sounds like a wonderful beginning to a major overhaul for our SF public schools. We need to support Mr. Garcia and insure that he gets appropriate funding for a successful implementation.

    I bet that regular (non-immersion) private schools in SF will scramble to add language education to the curriculum in earlier grades, because they cannot afford to lose families (read "$$$") to our new-age public schools.

  3. I love this idea although my child is already in Kindergarten so we've probably missed the boat. I hope that the school district will be able to include older students in the daily language instruction classes.

  4. This is a very noble plan, but I hope the district takes some time to find out exactly what is driving immersion's popularity. Immersion programs attract a certain type of family, which in turn attracts others of its kind. Getting into an immersion program currently guarantees that the racial make up of your class will not reflect the racial makeup of San Francisco.

  5. blah blah blah FLES negativity blah blah blah

    read: I wasn't able to master a language in high school, so I think no one can.

  6. Several private schools start languages in pre-K and K. But these FLES approaches do not result in fluency. The kids place in Spanish or French 2 or 3 in high school (which is were kids who start learning a language in sixth grade end up, too).

    Most FLES classes are pretty mediocre and deliver mediocre results.

    FLES approaches need to be strengthened to deliver on their promise/potential...

  7. Children's Day School offers Spanish starting in pre-K, but the 8th graders can't speak it.

  8. blah blah blah I think I am a FLES expert blah blah blah hearsay hearsay blah blah blah I speak in absolutes blah blah blah I think people don't understand the difference between immersion and FLES blah blah blah I can't stop beating a dead horse blah blah blah

  9. 12:15...

    I'm the one who posted at 7:28 and in my defense, ENGLISH is my second language (which I learned in a dual-immersion setting and speak without a foreign accent) and FRENCH, my third language, is the language I failed to master in high school. (Though I learned it well enough to place into French literature classes in college.)

  10. I saw a FLES class at McKinley in which the teacher spoke almost exclusively in English. From what I've read, even in FLES classrooms it is an acknowledged "best practice" to speak mostly in the target language.

    FLES is not inherently bad.. but most FLES teachers are not well-trained.

  11. I'm a parent of two kids in the JBBP Rosa Parks program.

    Even within the FLES model, there is a spectrum of quality. There are national standards that distinguish these levels. I don't know the details of other FLES programs in the District, but at JBBP RP our kids get:

    - 1 hour of Japanese reading, writing, conversation each day (from about 3rd grade, it goes down to 45 min)
    - NATIVE SPEAKING sensei
    - Sensei partner with credentialed classroom teachers (several who are also bilingual) to maximize as much core curriculum in Japanese
    - classroom standards for each grade for using Japanese conversation outside of Japanese time
    - much of the language is taught through the experience of culture (music, art, cooking, games, cultural events/celebrations, etc)which enhances language acquisition.

    If a student is in JBBP for 6 years from K, on average, they are testing out at the 3rd grade level fluency based on national standards for Japanese. Like other language models, including immersion, it is a long term goal, although certainly longer for FLES. So the REAL ISSUE, is ARTICUALTION. The lack of any midle school FLES programs to move onto and continue language development beyond 5th grade is a huge gap. Our families have found the beginning Japanese at Presidio and zero period at Hoover too easy for our students.

    It seems the master plan would begin to address the middle school gap. I sure hope so.

  12. That's good news for SFUSD. All the criticism reminds me of this - ( from Stuff White People Like.

    I had less than an hour a day when I was in elementary school and when I made the decision to take my Spanish lessons further, I had no trouble in school or bopping around on my own in Chile by the end of my 6 month tour o'study there.

  13. "Even after several years -- and starting at a very young age -- these kids were NOT fluent."

    Wow, give these kids a break. They're only five.

  14. My kid goes to Centro Las Olas, a Spanish-immersion preschool, and our kids have tested as fluent in their SFUSD assessments, though, according to the examiner, most of the kids from other preschool Spanish programs have not.

  15. Shouldn't the kids who have been taking Spanish for 9 years be ahead of those who have only taken it for 2? That is the problem with most FLES language programs. They just take longer to cover the same ground (meaning FLES programs starting in K vs. those starting in 6th grade).

  16. They just have something better to do. Like me. Time to start ignoring your posts.

  17. "Shouldn't the kids who have been taking Spanish for 9 years be ahead of those who have only taken it for 2?"

    Various posters have indicated there is room for improvement in FLES programs. And definitely, a parent enrolling their child in FLES needs to understand the goals and purpose, especially as we live in a fairly monolingual country (unless one is from immigrant parents or actively seeks out communities where target language is spoken).

    That being said -- there is another point to FLES -- which is to expose the child to culture also at an early age. And presumably, some kids will catch on better than others and may actually find great enjoyment out of the topic.

    But one can also make the argument that the 1 hour/day spent on languages could be spent on Math, or some Science topic also. Different strokes for different folks.

  18. I wonder where all of the teachers will come from who can pass the certification to be a foreign language teacher? If every elementary school has at least 30 minutes a day of language instruction in every class, that sounds like a lot of language teachers would be needed.

  19. I think the district needs to beef up middle school language programs. It seems cruel to dangle immersion at families in kindergarten only to snatch it away in sixth grade.

  20. It's my sense from hearing Margaret Peterson speak that the District plans on working from its strengths, i.e. using the existing immersion programs and going from there. And a big part of it will be fixing what's clearly broken in middle and high school for kids coming out of Spanish immersion.

    That's not going to be much of a comfort to the many Spanish immersion families who have found so little support for their kids when they get to middle school.

    However I get the sense that the district gets that there's a major problem, and wants to make it better. Money, staff and effort are the unknowns here. But I truly do think the will is there.

    As for teachers, Spanish is going to be easier than Chinese. Finding bilingual, certified teachers is rough and the competition is only going to get worse as other school districts ramp up.

    I hope at some point the district allows for Chinese teachers who aren't required to also teach English. That's asking a lot.

  21. Argonne has an FLES program in Russian that is gradually expanding through the schools (it started last year with Ks, this year it is in the K and 1st grade classrooms, next year it will be in K, 1, 2 and so on).

    Sadly my daughters started at Argonne too early to benefit from this program but I hear really positive things about it from parents, teachers and our principal.

    It's not immersion -- clearly kids don't receive enough exposure to the language to become fluent speakers by 5th grade, but from what I understand they will receive a fairly good foundation in the language.

    Is FLES perfect? Probably not, but what is? It's a different model than immersion and that's OK with me - I'm very glad we're expanding foreign language programs wherever we can in this district and as an Argonne parent I'm glad Argonne was chosen for the pilot Russian program.


  22. Personally, I think it's great. Although my child is not in an immersion program, I think all kids could benefit from (at least) exposure to another language.
    If nothing else, it broadens your perspective on other cultures.

  23. Please, please, please open a French/English school!

  24. Why French? THere are already three French schools in the Bay Area...and French is becoming a less strategic language in terms of giving kids a practical advantage going forward.

  25. Maybe this isn't the right thread, but nobody's posting to December's immersion thread anymore. My child passed the district Spanish test and was labeled fluent. Does that mean we have a better chance of getting the immersion school of our choice? They labeled him fluent not bilingual. But he is bilingual.

    Are they not going for the 33%/33%/33% make-up for a classroom? If a child is bilingual I think s/he would be very valuable in terms of translating for the other kids.

  26. 8:46 - It depends on how you filled-out your form. If you filled-out the form to indicate that Spanish was the dominant language in the home than his fluency will help him in placement. If not, then you are in with the rest of the competition for the english spots. Good luck

  27. I hope this means that my kids who are in Claire Lilienthal's Korean Immersion Program have a chance to have Korean in middle school. Currently there is no funding for Middle School Korean, so hopefully these great ideals will become reality, sooner than later.

  28. For the person who'd like a French school -- contact the district contact in the story. There are two private French immersion schools in San Francisco right now, which clearly shows there's interest. What it will take to get a French immersion public school going is a committed group of parents organizing and working with the district. And it wouldn't hurt to have someone with contact with the French embassy, to see if it's possible to get funding or grants from them, as funding's going to be rough for a few years.
    This is a real chance for groups of parents to make things happen, as long as they can show that there's interest.

  29. 8:46 -- Depends on which Spanish-immersion schools you are interested in. YOu will have a leg-up for schools that have traditionally had a hard time recruiting Spanish-speaking kids (Alvarado, for example) but a much harder time at Marshall,where all the Spanish-speaking slots are spoken for by Spanish-speaking siblings.

  30. Do not make the mistake of attributing the existence of two French schools to interest in the French language.

    We know *lots* of people at both the Lycee and French-American, and except for those families with a French-speaking parent, most are there *despite* French being the target language. Most are there because they want both language immersion *and* challenging, rigorous academics and don't feel they would get that in public school immersion programs. (I have to say that the "level" of French taught at FAIS and the LYcee is much higher than the level of Spanish taught in SFUSD.)

    If there were a private school alternative for Spanish immersion with rigorous academics and high level Spanish (where ENglish speaking children performed academically in Spanish at the same level as same-age peers in Spanish-speaking countries), FAIS would lose its appeal to most of the families we know.

    FAIS has a very generous financial aid program, so price need not be a factor for families who are passionate about the French language. There just aren't that many of them.

  31. Yeah, I know it's a recurring joke on the "Stuff White People Like" web site (which is actually quite amusing) but I would JUMP at the chance to send our kid to either a French immersion or French FLES program. We can't afford French-American and did not get into the Lycee or NDV. French is a family tradition for us, and our son is missing out because my husband and I have not pushed it enough at home (probably just as well given our fading skills). Because French does not have the same commercial potential as Spanish or Chinese does not make it useless--it is spoken in several countries in Europe and Africa. Given the fairly sizable French-speaking population in San Francisco, it would probably be reasonably manageable to staff. Also, the cultural connection to Francophone Africa might attract African-American families, who have statistically tended to remain marginalized in under-performing SFUSD schools in spite of the lottery, to participate more in the lottery or explore a new option. You could end up with a very interesting mix of low-income families and more affluent Francophiles. Immersion might be more challenging to populate with target-language students than FLES because French nationals can qualify for aid from the French government at the Lycee and French-American. I just put up a web site,, to see if parents who want French can get organized. It's kind of cheesy and I apologize; you'll see I'm not a professional web designer:).

  32. Did you even apply to FAIS? We have friends who got 90percent of tuition covered by financial aid there.

  33. I would just echo the comments of one of the above that SFUSD has a BIG problem in the absence of language programs at the middle school level. Parents whose kids were not in immersion in elementary now have no way to get any language instruction in the public middle schools here. And that's where a lot of private schools start to have more formalized language classes. For example, in response to Marlowe's mom's comment, I'd love it if the middle schools here had a French language alternative. I'm going to check out her website.

  34. 4:56, you are correct that there is a large gap in language offerings at the MS level, but it is not a complete zero--Presidio offers beginning Japanese and Spanish and there are a few others schools that offer some language (in addition to the immersion offerings at James Lick, Hoover, and Alice Fong Yu, of course). Hopefully this new proposal will be implemented. It certainly is a way for this district to shine, as it already does with the immersion offerings at the ES level.

  35. Well, Garcia and SFUSD are certainly showing a willingness to pander to the middle and upper middle classes, which of course will be popular on this blog. Personally, I'd like to see their plans for raising the achievement of English language learners, who often end up with TWO languages in which they read and write poorly. But the district needs the money, and y'all have it.

  36. 6:25am -- hey, you want to talk about pandering and monies spent?
    The ELD program has way huge budget in this district with the bilingual programs that are geared ONLY for specific ELD learners -- and some are seriously underenrolled.

    If you want to look at the reason for failure amongst these kids in 2 languages then look at how they are being educated. Are you talking about Spanish immigrants, Cantonese immigrants, Russian kids, who? I presume you mean the Spanish speaking kids? If so, then look at the Bilingual programs, since that is where most of these kids are placed. Russian kids don't get bilingual program, just regular ELD pullout so see where how well they are doing in English by 3rd grade (when entering in K).

    Special interest groups use bilingual programs as a political tool. Oh, yes, one cannot talk about mentioned any bad points about bilingual programs because that is so UN-PC.

    The immersion model may very well work much better than pure bilingual models that socially/culturally isolate groups of students -- there are no English dominant kids in bilingual classes to force the kids to speak English. Or maybe immersion doesn't work well for the native speaking kids, haven't seen the studies. Maybe if kids want to learn English fast and well (at the expense of maintaining their literacy in heritage language), they do need to join a GEN ED program as soon as feasible (with yes, continued targeted extra ELD sessions as needed)

    English Dominant families that want immersion are not the ones necessarily advocating for dual immersion, if your concern is that somehow the privileged middle class and upper classes are USING the immigrants for their own purposes. In fact, the opposite, since one way immersion opens up more slots for the English dominant kids. Granted, two way immersion on paper sure seems more effective, since you are accomplishing more than one goal and mixing kids socially, culturally, etc. And granted, two way immersion serves the underserved population also - so you see how this argument has become so circular. English dominant kids are only given option of two way immersion if they want language, because that is all the PC district is willing to creaate, and then same English dominant kids are accused of using the immigrant kids.

    Whew. My head hurts.

  37. I really would like to have the option for a Japanese immersion program within SFUSD. Turning Rosa Parks into a immersion program and leaving Clarendon as JBBP would be ideal.

  38. Maybe you should set up a website also (like the French immersion) and reach out to other families in the JBBP at both Clarendon and Rosa Parks?
    It sounds like it would not take that much to convert the program from FLES to Immersion (as opposed to starting from scratch).
    Great idea! And just think of the support and opportunities you could get from the Japanese consulate, Japanese companies etc.

  39. I think it is a terrific goal and very exciting. I just am in wonder about staffing these schools.

    Where are they going to get all the quality russian, arabic, french, and so forth teaching staff in a couple of years?

    What are they going to do with all the teaching staff that doesn't have a second language...or even teachers that speak a second language that isn't going to be necessary like Dutch or Swedish or Portuguese?

    Just trying to figure out how to make this happen, and happen well!!!, in just a few years.

  40. For anyone interested in French language education in the San Francisco Bay Area, I've started a blog to bring together all the French education resources available in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area:

    I've been looking for something for our 3-year-old (and his one-year-old sister), and it's a frustrating experience. I find it bizarre that there's no site that puts NDV, FAIS and the La Pérouse on the same page. I hope to get some other French-interested public school parents to respond, and hopefully the interactive blogger site will encourage that more than some static site.

    It would be interesting to be able to leverage the expertise of the Alliance Française to get something great happening for French in the SFUSD.

  41. ^^Thanks!!