Glendale Unified Inaugurates Unusual German-Immersion Kindergarten

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Many public schools in the Southland welcomed students to their first day of school Tuesday. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez visited a campus where the youngest students are pretty sure to learn the meaning of the word "kindergarten."

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: In 30 minutes, dozens of five-year-olds will stream into room 1124 at Glendale's Benjamin Franklin elementary school. The two teachers scan enrollment lists and preview the day's activities.

Barbara Haynes: We have been busy here the last two weeks, three weeks, already you know.

Guzman-Lopez: Teacher Barbara Haynes recites from a poster that every kid in her class will have to memorize: the class rules.

Haynes: [phrase in German]... listen very careful... [in German], follow the instructions... then [in German] respect yourself and others and use your words to solve the problems.

Guzman-Lopez: Wilkommen to Glendale Unified's first German language immersion class. Teacher Mark Alkofer opens a kit full of learning toys.

Mark Alkofer (in German): Learning stations for the early instruction of German, from the Goethe Institute.

Guzman-Lopez: Barbara Haynes is a veteran German school teacher who moved to this country a couple of years ago. Alkofer's a German-American who heard the language at home and studied it in college. Glendale Unified hired both last year after it said yes to a petition by area parents to start a German immersion class for this school year.

During the last five years, enrollment's dropped drastically at Franklin Elementary and in the entire school district. The German immersion class is one strategy to generate enrollment from within and even beyond the district.

Teacher: Welcome back to Franklin. Boys and girls, if I can have you all lined up nice and straight and facing the front.

Guzman-Lopez: Educators say that in the early grades, learning an additional language exercises kids' developing mental muscles. That's what computer programmer Ulrich Sinn wants for his five-year-old son Stephan.

[Boy answers "yes"]

Guzman-Lopez: Sinn the elder grew up in Austria. He isn't worried about his son's ability to learn English.

Ulrich Sinn: I think he will pick that up no matter what, just going out on the playground and being around other kids. We have an older one and the older one just learned it as he went along.

Guzman-Lopez: Researchers agree with Sinn that it's important to reinforce the dominant language. Most parents who choose language immersion programs, educators say, believe that the ability to speak more than one idiom will open doors. That's what Delia Webster has in mind for her daughter Nemesis.

Delia Webster: We want her to have more chances, better chances if she learns more languages. Because they have more opportunities.

Guzman-Lopez: These kinds of classes have been around for about three decades. Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties list between half a dozen and a dozen in each county. There are nearly 60 in L.A. County.

The vast majority are Spanish immersion classes, with a few Korean and Japanese language programs. Lisa Ramos Oakley lives in Toluca Lake. She enrolled her five-year-old son Jackson in Franklin Elementary's German program.

Lisa Ramos Oakley: When my great-grandparents came to this country, they deliberately didn't speak German, because there was a lot of prejudice about speaking it. And I believe it's the same for Spanish speakers now, who are the primary immigrant in this country.

Guzman-Lopez: That prejudice was alive when the school's namesake was a Philadelphia printer. Benjamin Franklin published America's first German-language newspaper in 1732. But he also criticized German immigrants in Pennsylvania for their failure to assimilate into English-speaking culture.