By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
GLENDALE.–What began as a “What if…” situation has become a source of pride and anticipation for a group of parents in and around Glendale.
While picking up her daughter at the Kodomo No Ie Japanese school in San Gabriel earlier this year, Burbank resident Kumiko Anicich overheard a couple of mothers chatting about a language immersion program for kindergarteners and first- and second-graders in the Glendale public schools. They were beaming about the district’s Foreign Language Academy of Glendale (FLAG) and the success it was enjoying in teaching Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Italian and German, not only to kids who spoke them at home, but also to children who had no connection languages other than English.
It was then that Anicich and another mom thought, “Maybe they could add Japanese…”
“There was a group of parents, who were able to have Italian added as part of the program, so I thought, maybe we could do that, too,” she told the Rafu on last Tuesday.
Anicich soon found plenty of support within her inner circle for the idea, so she and a few friends began circulating emails, using Japanese internet billboards like ViviNavi–as well as physical billboards and markets and shopping centers–and eventually the networking site Mixi, a Japanese version of Facebook.
“At first we were asking each other, ‘do you really think it’s possible to have Japanese?’ But the idea had a lot of support, so we suggested it to the school board,” she explained.
With only three parents of first graders committed and her own daughter who also currently attends kindergarten in Burbank, Anicich and her group petitioned the idea to the Glendale Unified School District. To their delight–and somewhat to their surprise–Japanese was accepted into the FLAG program and will begin with classes in the Fall of 2010.
“All the parents couldn’t believe it. We’re overjoyed,” Anicich told the Glendale News-Press after the School Board’s decision last month, adding that she and the rest of the supporters let out a “scream of joy.”
The Japanese immersion classes will comprise the regular school day for the kids in the program and will take place at Verdugo Woodlands Elementary. It will be modeled after the current Korean classes, which are held at Mark Keppel Elementary. Students there are taught a fairly standard curriculum, covering all subjects, in a roughly 50/50 mix of English and Korean, contrasted by the 90 percent Spanish immersion initially used for that program.
“We find that by splitting the day by language, the children have a chance to get acclimated to each separate environment,” said Naehi Wong, the FLAG coordinator for the Korean program. “In kindergarten, the kids will start in one classroom, with an English speaking environment, then after lunch, they go to a different room, where the materials and room decor reflects Korean culture,” she explained.”
Wong said that they alternate which language is used first every day, and while the adults speak only the target language in the respective classrooms, the children are not forced.
“Children are free to speak whichever language they are most comfortable with, but we encourage them to use the one the rest of the class is speaking,” she said. “Some are stronger in Korean when they start, some have a better command of English.”
Wong added that of the 80 or so students in the Korean program, about two-thirds were already speaking some level of Korean before enrolling. Some are children of Korean immigrants or are immigrants themselves, while some have no Korean heritage whatsoever.
FLAG’s philosophy is based in part on a 1997 study by George Mason University professors Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, who determined that a dual-language approach to teaching enhances academic success in both languages and all subjects.
Wong said all subjects are taught in both languages, without overlap, and that there is no translation. She said the support of peers is vitally important to helping kids who may initially have difficulty in one language or the other.
“A child who might be very fluent in Korean, for example, are sort of language leaders in the Korean class, but when they swith to the English class, they might need a little help,” she said.
When the Japanese arm of FLAG gets underway, it will do so under the auspices of Verdugo Woodlands principal Janet Buhl, herself a specialist in immersion education. Anicich said a priority for her group is to encourage non-speakers of Japanese to enroll. They have been informing parents of the new classes, even going so far as to hand out leaflets at this year’s Nisei Week festivities.
“Considering the marketability of Japanese in today’s job market, it’s not as strong as Spanish or Chinese,” she said. “That’s why we feel that promoting our program to second, third, and fourth generation Japanese Americans might be the best way to attract non-native speakers.”
Anicich said that as of this week, there are some 10 kindergarten students and three first graders committed to the Japanese class. Once all the pre-enrollment paperwork is completed, the district will begin searching for qualified teachers.
Glendale Unified has distinguished itself in areas of language education, receiving the title of 2009 Bilingual District of the Year from the California Association for Bilingual Education. Wong explained that the FLAG approach makes sense because academic proficiency tends to follow language skills.
“Children who are very strong in their first language tend to acquire a second language very quickly, as well as testing higher in all subjects,” she said.
FLAG is open to transfer students from nearby districts, so residency in Glendale is not required. The program has received a federal grant of $2.4 million, to be used in increments over a five-year period. Plans are to expand its Spanish program, now in its seventh year, and to add another Korean class.
For Anicich, the new FLAG program will be vital to helping her daughter be truly bilingual.
“Ever since she was born, I’ve been doing everything I can to make sure she not only understands Japanese, but that she has an appreciation for her culture,” she said.