Bilingual education gives Alhambra Catholic school new life

Location

All Souls Elementary School

29 S. Electric Avenue
Alhambra , CA 91801 United States

The kindergarten and first grade combination class at All Souls Elementary School may seem like a typical Alhambra classroom. At 8 a.m. the diverse group of kids — Chinese, Hispanic, Caucasian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino — are already bouncing with energy, playing with stuffed toys and picture books. Posters of the alphabet and numbers hang on the walls, and the teacher, Mandy Chou, hustles to gather the students at the beginning of the school day.

The Mandarin class says a morning prayer.

But when Chou calls them to attention, the students immediately stand up, put their palms together, and face the crucifix on the wall to recite a prayer in Mandarin.

Growing up in the Philippines, my Catholic bilingual education was the norm. Most Filipino private and public schools start their day with a school-wide prayer before students learn English and Tagalog in the classroom. I never expected to find a similar teaching approach in Southern California, but bilingual education is a growing trend, even right here in Alhambra.

The Mandarin class practices adding and subtracting.

Bilingual education, or dual immersion, gave All Souls a second wind. After teaching San Gabriel Valley students for more than 90 years, the private school on Main Street and Electric Avenue closed its classrooms in 2010 due to low enrollment following the recession. But in 2012, the school re-launched with a limited K-1 bilingual program. Out of the 200 Catholic elementary schools in Southern California, it remains the only one that offers a dual immersion program in Spanish and Mandarin, according to All Souls Principal Anne Bouvet.

“Every child in America should be learning two languages,” Bouvet says. "We need to address the needs of kids in the global 21st century."

Offering bilingual education was the only way the school could re-open and set itself apart, according to Bouvet. A growing number of schools in California are doing the same. Approximately 318 schools offered bilingual education programs in 2012 compared to 201 in 2006, California Watch reports. Ninety percent of these programs teach Spanish as the second language, four percent teach Mandarin, and three percent teach Korean or other languages.

The statewide growth of dual immersion programs can be seen at All Souls: 50 students are set to start in the fall compared to 20 who enrolled in the 2012-2013 school year. All Souls will be adding four more levels to the curriculum, making it a K-5 school. Some students are even coming from as far as Claremont.

The Spanish class reads a book together.

All Souls offers two language tracks, Spanish and Mandarin. Thirteen students participated in the Spanish track in the 2012-2013 school year. The mostly Hispanic class was divided into four rotating groups that focused on vocabulary exercises, reading, writing, and a combination of the three where students created their own picture book. The Mandarin classroom’s diverse set of seven students named fruits and vegetables, counted in Chinese, and learned basic addition and subtraction skills. Both classrooms are decorated with teaching materials in their own language and equipped with iPads for interactive and educational games.

Some All Souls parents are already seeing results. Shawn and Carlos Urueta, parents of an All Souls student in the Spanish track, say they are very pleased with their daughter’s progress in speaking the language. “At home, she speaks English but now, she can also speak and write in Spanish after just a year,” Carlos Urueta says.

A student reads to Spanish teacher Vivian Vazquez.

Yet, some San Gabriel Valley residents are still skeptical about dual immersion. Parents expressed in January concern about the teaching method, speaking out at a Pasadena forum on bilingual education sponsored by KPCC. Local parents were worried their children would confuse the different languages spoken in the classroom, and immigrant parents were especially concerned that it would impact their child’s ability to learn English. Not to mention that a bilingual education comes with a hefty price tag. One year at All Souls costs $6,500 compared to a national average of $4,944 for a year at traditional Catholic school, according to Council for American Private Education.

But studies on bilingual education show that learning two languages can actually increase a child’s ability to focus, organize, and solve problems, according to Education Nation. A 2010 study of Mandarin-English bilingual students in Taiwan also showed that dual immersion actually increases the ability to read in both languages. And while Bouvet acknowledges that All Souls’ tuition is higher than that of the average Catholic school, it includes books and various school activities, unlike other institutions that flaunt a lower tuition but charge parents these hidden fees throughout the year, she says.

A bulletin board hanging in the hallway at All Souls Elementary School.

Parents from all backgrounds are also attracted to the idea of giving their child a multicultural and value-centric education, according to Bouvet. “Parents want their kids to grow up with values. Even the parents who are practicing Buddhists, they understand that we are teaching their kids broad values that no one would oppose to,” Bouvet says.

Although I don’t understand a single word of the Mandarin prayer the morning I visit All Souls, it’s refreshing to watch children from different ethnicities stand still for a moment and unite in a foreign but common language. 

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