The Westminster School District in Orange County is launching California's first Vietnamese-English immersion program in the fall of 2015.
The inaugural class will include up to 100 kindergarten students at DeMille Elementary School in Midway City, according to school board member Jamison Power.
Power said families in the heavily-Vietnamese district, which also operates schools in Garden Grove and Huntington Beach, have been asking for an immersion program for years. The city of Westminster alone, is more than 40 percent Vietnamese, according to latest census figures.
"Being bilingual in today's globalized society makes our students more competitive in the job market," said Power, who plans to enroll his half-Vietnamese son in the immersion program when he becomes old enough in several years.
Power said that Vietnamese language skills could help younger generations "start a new business in Little Saigon and market a new product to the Vietnamese-American community," while allowing them to preserve their culture.
Vietnamese is the fifth-most spoken language in California, after English, Spanish, Chinese and Tagalog.
Superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps was not available for comment Tuesday, but the district released a statement to KPCC:
The need for students to be bilingual and multilingual is rapidly increasing. Westminster School District is pleased to do its part to prepare our students to be true global citizens by offering the first Vietnamese dual language immersion program in California. With a student population that is about 40 percent Vietnamese and with Westminster being home to Little Saigon, we think this program is a perfect fit for our community. We look forward to offering this program in fall 2015.
Power said the K-8 district in Orange County has the funds to launch the program by hiring one Vietnamese-language teacher for the kindergartners. More staff will have to be brought on as the immersion students progress to the eighth grade.
Power predicted the program would draw more families to the school district, and that would help pay for the additional staff required.
The National Resource Center for Asian Languages at California State University, Fullerton will help the district develop its program, said Natalie Tran, an associate professor in education who is leading the center.
"I'm pretty sure 20 years from now — or even 10 years from now — we'll look back and this will be a historical moment in the Vietnamese community," Tran said.
Tran said learning Vietnamese will not just be a useful tool for doing business with other Vietnamese in the U.S. or Vietnam, but throughout the world.
"You also have Vietnamese in Australia, in European countries, in other Asian countries," Tran said. "If you look at Vietnamese culture, you can see its presence around the globe."
Even though California is home to 40 percent of the country's Vietnamese immigrants, one of its schools was not the first to offer Vietnamese-English immersion. Tran said other programs have been introduced in Washington, Oregon and Texas in recent years.
As for the Westminster district, Power said it's not content with stopping with Vietnamese. He said the board has also talked about a Spanish-English immersion program for the future.