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Assessing language immersion after a decade in Delaware schools

A third grade Chinese immersion class in the Appoquinimink School District
Appoquinimink School District
Teacher Bunny Chang teaching about Chinese New Year in a third grade Chinese immersion class in the Appoquinimink School District

Delaware’s language immersion program in public schools launched in 2011 - meaning some of the students who were there at the start are now in high school.

So how is the program - and the students in it - faring?

Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look this week.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discussion language immersion in Delaware schools

With nearly 10,000 students currently enrolled and new grades still being added, Dual Language Immersion (DLI) programs are solidifying their position in Delaware’s public-school landscape.

Announced in 2011 by former Gov. Jack Markell and launched as a pilot program in three schools the following year, DLI programs offering either Spanish or Chinese are now operating in 12 of the 15 school districts that serve the elementary grades (all but Lake Forest, Laurel and Woodbridge). Two charter schools, Las Americas Aspira and Academia Antonia Alonso, offer Spanish immersion, and Odyssey Charter has the state’s only Greek immersion program.

Growth has been steady – from the original three schools to 29 in 2017 to 57 this year. Spanish is offered in 46 schools to about 8,500 students, Chinese in 13 to about 1,300. (Three schools offer immersion in both languages.)

Some of the first students to enter a Chinese immersion program – in the Caesar Rodney School District – are finishing their first year of high school by taking the Chinese Advanced Placement exam. They will have the opportunity to take three more years of Chinese classes in high school – and earning college credit for them – or learning a third language, making them trilingual before they earn their diplomas.

“We believe these students will leave the program with a high level of language proficiency, definitely an economic asset for them,” says Lynn Fulton-Archer, a world language immersion specialist at the state Department of Education.

Starting early

Immersion programs involve far more than just learning a second language. In the model used by most participating Delaware elementary schools, two subjects, social studies and language arts, are taught in English while science, math and either Spanish or Chinese language arts are taught in the target language.

Immersion programs begin in kindergarten or first grade. Students usually can’t transfer into them at a higher grade because they would have missed too many of the basics, educators say.

Programs typically start with cohorts of about 50 students in kindergarten or first grade split into two sections. Instruction uses a team-teaching approach, with two teachers, one of them usually a native speaker of the target language, sharing responsibilities, spending half a day with each section. Some charter schools follow a different model – teaching all subjects in both languages, with instructors alternating between groups every other day.

Lynn Fulton-Archer, Delaware Department of Education world language immersion specialist

Definitive statistics on how well the programs are working are difficult to come by, Fulton-Archer says. Because of COVID-19, the 2018-19 school year was the last year that the state has reliable data from its annual Smarter Balanced assessments, which aren’t given until third grade, so there were only about a dozen schools that had immersion students taking the state assessments that year.

In general, Fulton-Archer says, it appears that immersion students are doing as well as, or better than, peers enrolled in the regular curriculum at their schools.

Learning subject content in a new language makes immersion programs more challenging than in the typical English-only setting, educators agree. Some districts start new students with “immersion summer camps,” featuring singing and learning vocabulary basics like colors and numbers. Activities that bring parents to school so classes can show off what they’re learning are quite common. And schools encourage parents to expose children to their target language by watching Spanish-language television or placing orders at Chinese or Latino restaurants.

Taking the state assessment presents a unique challenge for the immersion students, says Sarah Vieni-Vento, coordinator of world languages and immersion in the Appoquinimink School District. “They take the math test in English after learning math in English or Chinese,” she says.

“I wonder what their brains look like when they do math concepts,” says Darren Guido, supervisor of instruction in the Caesar Rodney School District. “Having to learn the concepts in Chinese or Spanish must create extra connections in the brain.”

By fifth grade, “they’re able to converse with other students, hold full conversations in Chinese,
says Anne Park, principal at Downes Elementary School in Newark, which has had an immersion program since 2013.

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
Former Gov. Jack Markell visits one of the early language immersion classrooms shortly after the program launched in 2012

The middle years

The state’s model curriculum changes in middle school, typically grades six through eight. Instead of a 50-50 split between instruction in English and the target language, only 30 percent of the classes are taught in Spanish or Chinese – social studies and language arts in the target language.

Appoquinimink, however, is going beyond the target, teaching science in Spanish as well since its first cohort of immersion students entered Meredith Middle School last fall, Vieni-Vento says. “We want to increase the amount of language instruction they can have during the day.”

One goal, she says, is to give the top students the chance to take the Spanish AP exam, usually given to high school juniors and seniors, in eighth grade.

The district plans to follow the same pattern when its first group of Chinese immersion students reaches middle school in the fall of 2023, she says.

As students have advanced from Downes to Shue-Medill Middle School, the Christina district has tried to develop a bridge between the schools. Shue-Medill students led a multicultural night at Downes, and, when the COVID-19 pandemic put schools in a hybrid instruction mode, Shue-Medill students used Zoom connections to read stories in Chinese to first- and second-graders, according to Chuck Priestley, the middle school’s assistant principal.

Middle school programming often goes beyond typical classroom instruction.

At Shue-Medill, Principal Michele Savage says, the school builds in “enrichment time” when all three grade levels can work together, discussing character building and other real-life topics in Chinese, reading Chinese novels, and play-acting scenarios to help them build their everyday vocabulary.

Appoquinimink School District
Teacher Zeribeth Parada works with a 6th grade Spanish Language Arts Class at Meredith Middle School in Appoquinimink School District

Moving into high school

The state’s pioneering immersion students – those taking Chinese in Caesar Rodney and Spanish in the Indian River and Red Clay districts – are now finishing ninth grade. The state’s curriculum model has students taking a full-year class in their target language, with the goal of taking the AP exam at the end of the year.

In Caesar Rodney, 100 students started Chinese immersion in kindergarten and 47 continued into high school. Most of them were taking the AP exam this spring, Guido says.

For the next three years, these students will be able to take college-level Chinese classes, with the possibility of earning nine college credits before graduation.

“We believe these students will leave the program with a high level of language proficiency, definitely an economic asset for them."
Lynn Fulton-Archer, Delaware Department of Education world language immersion specialist

None of the traditional required high school classes – science, math, social studies and language arts – are taught in the target language.

Students moving from Shue-Medill to Newark High School this fall will follow the same pattern as those at Caesar Rodney experienced this year.

The dual-enrollment credits are part of a “bridge program” included in a memorandum of understanding among the Department of Education, the state’s school districts, the University of Delaware and Delaware State University, according to Gregory Fulkerson, director of language acquisition at the state Department of Education. Under this arrangement, “it’s possible for students to graduate from high school just one course short of having a college minor in a foreign language,” he says.

For this program, high school teachers are trained by the university to give college-level instruction and then are designated as adjunct faculty members, Guido says.

Two-way immersion

School districts with significant populations of native Spanish speakers are attempting to implement what’s known as “two-way immersion,” placing roughly equal numbers of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in the same class. The numbers don’t always work out, due to demographic variations among attendance zones, but “it creates a more authentic experience,” says Amanda Archambault, supervisor of elementary education in the Cape Henlopen School District, which has immersion programs in all its elementary schools.

“It’s a benefit to have as many native speaking-students in a class as possible,” she says, because it enables them to serve as role models for their English-speaking peers. A side benefit, she and others note, is that it gives Latino students, who would be in a minority in a traditional classroom, greater opportunities to show off their knowledge and develop leadership skills.

The Seaford School District has also successfully implemented two-way immersion in its elementary schools, the Department of Education’s Fulkerson says.

The entire population at Red Clay’s Lewis Elementary has been taught with the two-way model since it began as one of the state’s pilot programs in 2012.

In districts that don’t have high proportions of English learners, administrators are trying to place as many of these students as possible in immersion programs because it gives them more exposure to native English speakers than they would have in an English as a Second Language program, Fulkerson says.

The attrition issue

Within immersion programs, attrition is inevitable. Numbers will drop because children cannot enter after first grade but some of those enrolled will move, lose interest or can’t keep up with the program’s content.

For districts to sustain programs, they should have about 40 students enrolled per grade level at each participating school, according to Harold Shaw Jr., director of school support in the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Numbers vary by school, but losses have been greater in Chinese programs than in Spanish, Fulton-Archer says. Some schools have dropped from two pairs of classes at a grade level to one as students move into upper grades. The COVID-19 pandemic led to enrollment drops because it is more difficult to learn a foreign language in a hybrid or remote environment and reduced interaction with parents made it harder to attract children entering kindergarten and first grade.

Parents of students learning Chinese find it harder to support their children as the lessons become more advanced, Shaw says.

As students reach middle school, emerging interests sometimes lead to scheduling problems – as when a music lover finds that an immersion class conflicts with band or chorus, Shue-Medill’s Priestley says. Another issue, he notes, is that by sixth grade some children are tired of having been with the same group of classmates since kindergarten.

Enrollment drops have prompted two districts to phase out their Chinese immersion programs.

Students in second through sixth grade in the Colonial School District will continue in the program through eighth grade, but no new students are being admitted, and kindergarten and first grade students will return to traditional programming in the fall, according to Nneka Jones, Colonial’s assistant superintendent.

With fewer students enrolling at the kindergarten level and older students steadily dropping out, Red Clay stopped admitting children to its Chinese immersion program at Linden Hill Elementary last fall. The program will continue until current students finish fifth grade, Shaw says.

Teachers: recruitment and retention

Recruiting teachers, especially those equipped to teach Chinese, is less of a problem than it was in the early years of the program, Fulkerson says. Rather than relying on international agreements to import teachers for two- or three-year stays, they are relying more on recruiting Chinese nationals who are studying in master’s degree programs at U.S. universities.

Cape Henlopen has some of its Spanish-speaking paraprofessionals enrolled in teacher training programs, Archambault says. Developing homegrown teachers is important because it can be difficult for teachers from overseas to find affordable housing in the beach area, she says. “We work with Realtors, we use word of mouth, we find people who have a spare room to rent to teachers.”

Appoquinimink has hired an “international onboarding specialist” for its human resources department and works regularly with an immigration attorney to keep track of visa issues for its immersion teachers, Vieni-Vento says.

Caesar Rodney is developing a pipeline with Delaware State University, and has already hired one DSU grad who started as a volunteer and then as a student teacher to join its immersion program, Guido says.

Officials at all districts contacted say that their own immersion teachers are one of their best resources in identifying new talent for the program.

Evaluating teachers can be a challenge for administrators who don’t know the language. Priestley at Shue Medill says first thing he looks for is that no English is being spoken in the classroom. Then he observes whether the teacher is well organized. And he says he makes a point of asking students seated near him to explain what the teacher is doing.


It’s difficult to project the growth of immersion programs but there’s far more room for expansion than contraction. While attrition will remain a factor, immersion programs have only reached the middle school level in nine of the 12 districts where they’re offered, and the high school level in only three districts. For each district that is still building out its program, that means perhaps 50 new students per year in each school where immersion is offered.

"It’s possible for students to graduate from high school just one course short of having a college minor in a foreign language."
Gregory Fulkerson, Delaware Department of Education director of language acquisition

But the ultimate size of the program may be less important than the impact it has on the individual participants.

“We’re preparing students for a future that is unknown to us,” says Fulton-Archer. “By leaving high school with proficiency in two or more languages, they are better able to understand different perspectives and have a great understanding of diversity. They’re flexible thinkers, willing to take risks and able to succeed in different types of environments.”

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.