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Burbank Leader

Burbank Unified moves toward dual-language learning

1:16 PM PST, November 20, 2012

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Burbank Unified is moving to join the growing trend of dual-language education — a system that in neighboring Glendale has spread like wildfire as parents eagerly sign their students up to be fluent in one of six languages by the time they graduate from elementary school.

In dual immersion classes, students can spend up to 90% of the day speaking, reading and writing in a foreign language. At the very minimum, students spend half the day working in English and the other half in a second language.

“Bilingualism has made a comeback,” said Tom Kissinger, director of elementary education for Burbank Unified.

In 31 states, there are 422 dual immersion programs, and California leads with 233 programs, he said during a school board meeting last week.

Meanwhile, Kissinger said questions from parents on why Burbank Unified has no similar program have rolled in.

In fact, some of them have gone across the district border to enroll their children in Glendale Unified’s own program, in which elementary students spend at least half the school day working in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Korean and Armenian.

Now, Burbank Unified officials are proposing to start a Spanish-language dual immersion program in fall 2013.

“With this proposal, hopefully this will be the start,” Kissinger said.

School board members expressed optimism that it would be successful, but were concerned about what it would take to create and then expand the program each year through 2019.

“I have mixed feelings about it not for any other reason except I’m not real sure how it’s going to work,” said school board member Dave Kemp. “I think there’s a lot of questions we haven’t answered.”

The dual language immersion approach isn’t without its challenges. School districts that have rapidly expanded the program to include multiple languages may have hard time finding enough qualified instructors. And in places like Glendale — where the programs have been in place for years — district officials are now confronting the issue of how they can expand the dual-language teaching into secondary schools as students graduate up through the system.

Burbank school board President Larry Applebaum also asked about the impact of dual-language learning on standardized student exams.

“What happens if they’re not performing well as a whole cohort?” he asked.

Kissinger acknowledged that research shows dual immersion students may not perform as well on standard tests until they’re in fourth grade, but by fifth, he said, they’re outperforming their peers.

Despite the unknowns, the school board was largely enthusiastic about the proposal, with interim school board member John Dilibert noting the career benefits of bilingualism for students.

“I am truly a proponent of it,” he said.

The school board is scheduled to discuss the development of the program again in January.

“Who knows, maybe it will blossom like Glendale’s,” Kemp said.

-- Kelly Corrigan, Times Community News

Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan