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Chester County Press

Penn London School’s Language Immersion Program: A gateway to peace and success for students

03/28/2022 12:00AM ● By Steven Hoffman

While school districts across the country vigorously disagree about what to teach in classrooms, the Penn London Elementary School in the Avon Grove School District has chosen a different path. 

Some might say they are heroes on the education front. They have chosen to agree that the focus of education should simply be on the students and their needs.

Instead of adults spewing vitriol, which ultimately causes division among the students who are watching and learning from the adults, the staff at Penn London Elementary School has worked together, thought outside the box, and come up with a Language Immersion Program. 

What is a Language Immersion Program? Avon Grove School District’s Language Immersion Program will include two classes of incoming Kindergarten students. In each class, half of the students will be native speakers of English and half will be native speakers of Spanish.

Let’s stop right there. While some other school districts’ citizenry continue to see an increase in foreign students, as a precursor to decreasing test scores, the Avon Grove School District has chosen to see it as a stepping stone to increase the knowledge and thereby future opportunities of all students.

Language Immersion works like this: Half of the school day will be conducted in English and half will be conducted in Spanish. The students are together the entire day. During English instructional times, the curriculum will include English Language, arts, science, social studies and encore subjects. During Spanish instructional times, the curriculum will include Spanish Language, arts and mathematics. The objective is to create a unified community of future-ready learners through the integration of languages and cultures. 

And there are goals for students:

~ To attain high levels of academic achievement in English and Spanish;

~ To develop high levels of bilingualism and biliteracy;

~ To develop an appreciation of and a respect for language and culture

Avon Grove's Language Immersion Program is open to all students entering Kindergarten in the 2022-2023 school year. If you would like your Kindergarten student to be considered for participation in the Language Immersion Program, you can indicate that preference during the Kindergarten registration process. Interested students will be selected at random through a lottery system. 

This idea began with Dr. Natalie Ortega-Moran, who is now a principal at a Language Immersion School in Delaware.

According to Dr. Nicole Harvey, the assistant  superintendent at Avon Grove School District, “Dr. Ortega-Moran was an administrator in AGSD. She was passionate about the topic and did her doctorate dissertation in that subject. We relied on the research she had done in this area to help us design our program. We also conducted site visits to schools in Pennsylvania and Delaware.” 

Harvey continued researching the program for a year. The Avon Grove School Board was overwhelmingly in support of the program.

“I thought we would have the support of the school board because there is research showing bilingual immersion has a long-term positive impact,” Harvey explained. “It is the best program we can give to our students.”

Harvey continued, “In our area we have seen a large increase in the population of Spanish-speaking families. We are at about 50 percent of English and Spanish. We felt like our community would benefit tremendously with the learners that we serve. At this point, our goal is to make sure students stay in the program as long as they want. The program will start in the 2022-2023 school year.”

They fully expect families will commit to long-term participation in the program and support learning and collaboration at home. To assist this approach, younger siblings of students in Avon Grove's Language Immersion Program will be given preference to participate when they begin Kindergarten.

At the start of each school year, two new classes of incoming Kindergarten students will be added to the program. Participating students will continue in the program from Kindergarten through grade 12.

What do parents think about the program? One young mother who has a kindergartner in the school district thinks it is amazing.

“I am sorry that my son, who is currently a kindergartner, will miss this opportunity,” she said. “However, I am very excited that my two younger children would be able to take advantage of it. I don’t know why no one thought of this sooner. I would be ecstatic if my children could learn a language, especially in this way. I am very aware that most people in this country only speak one language. I want my children to speak many languages and this sets them up for that possibility. This will open many doors for them and all children involved in this program.”

Sister Jane Houtman, who is well-known in the Hispanic community, is very excited about the program.

“I learned Spanish when I went to Chile and worked for the National Health Service,” Houtman said. “I spent 10 years in Chile. Ten of us went there and I was the only nurse. I had an intense language course and travelled to many hospitals there. I certainly had to know what I was saying as a nurse.”

Houtman added, “I think this is a very good idea. We can’t just expect adults to learn the language, but children can learn quickly in a program like this. Children are interested in learning and this is a great age to start teaching them.”

Houtman feels our children can only benefit from having a better understanding of their neighbors.

“I’ve travelled and lived in other countries. I feel strongly that people going to a foreign country bring the best of their culture. They want to shine,” she said.

Houtman worked for years with the dance company “Danza Tenochth” and learned how dancing, the arts, and learning a language can quickly bridge the barriers between countries.

The dance company travelled extensively along the east coast, visiting many states and making many friends along the way. She explained that people were much more willing to accept foreigners when watching children dancing.

“From my travels I’ve seen how this country is known as a unilingual country. It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “People in the troupe were age 6 to 18 and they loved sharing their language as much as their dancing. Looking at this globally, having children learn another language opens them up to other cultures, other languages, and diplomacy. It quite simply makes them more intelligent. Isn’t that what we want for our children? Doesn’t that give them more opportunities?”

As we all sit and watch the war in Ukraine, is it possible that learning different languages and learning about different cultures could be about more than just increasing test scores? Might it, in some small way, be a pathway to peace? If we can speak to each other, who knows, maybe we can make friends, not war.

For more information on this program contact Kelly Harrison, principal  of the Penn London Elementary School, at [email protected] or 610-869-9803.