Spanish immersion program marks 20th year | News | Palo Alto Online |


Spanish immersion program marks 20th year

Two decades later, first students reflect on how the Palo Alto elementary school program changed their lives

One works on climate change in the White House. Another started a new job this week as an elementary school dual-immersion teacher. Another is a journalist; another is heading to Chile this fall for a physical therapy internship; and one now serves as program director for DreamCatchers, a local nonprofit that provides after-school tutoring and mentoring to low-income Palo Alto students.

The common thread in these seemingly disparate career choices is Palo Alto Unified School District's Spanish immersion program, from which all of these people graduated from many years ago.

The program, which has been housed at Escondido Elementary School since the late 1990s, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend. Students and families from the earliest cohorts of the program are returning from elsewhere in the state and country to attend the celebration, a testament to the deep impact and close ties the immersion program produced.

The program's earliest students, now in their mid-20s, all describe the program as having a lasting impact on their lives that went far beyond simply being able to speak a second language. It developed in all of them an appreciation of language, education and cultural differences that has played out in each of their lives in compelling ways.

Twenty years later, one can see the impact of the Spanish immersion program most directly through two students. Kristin Hallsted, now 25 years old, reflected on her time in the program as she set up her own third-grade dual-immersion classroom in southern California last week.

"I think I got to be a more accepting person of other cultures and other types of people," she said. The Palo Alto program regularly takes students to both Mexico and Spain, and she said traveling as a child was eye-opening for her.

Hallsted was among the first 28 kindergarteners in the inaugural group in 1995 at Fairmeadow Elementary School. Her parents said they enrolled her on a whim when the immersion option was offered at kindergarten registration; neither speaks Spanish fluently, but they have some familiarity with the language. Her mother's family members, all from Europe, speak multiple languages, and she wanted the same for her daughter.

After going through the district and continuing to take Spanish, Hallsted went to Whittier College in southern California, where she double-majored in child development and Spanish. She also studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain, during college. After graduation, she worked as a teacher's assistant in a mostly Latino community (the fact that she spoke Spanish got her the job, she said) and got a master's degree in elementary bilingual education. Her younger sister Kimberley also went through the immersion program. (She's the one leaving the country in a few months for a physical therapy internship in Chile, a country she chose for the language spoken there.)

One of Kristin Hallsted's early immersion teachers was Magdalena Fittoria. Fittoria was born in Mexico, went on to attend Stanford University as a first-generation college student and later joined Palo Alto Unified School District as a Spanish immersion teacher in the program's second year. Fittoria went on to serve as the principal of Barron Park Elementary School for several years and this school year started in a new post as a special projects administrator for the district, tasked with helping to implement recommendations from the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory committee and with an expansion of the district's Response to Intervention (RTI) program, a process meant to provide early identification and support for struggling students.

Fittoria also enrolled her son in the Spanish immersion program as a first-grader. Fittoria -- who moved to the United States when she was in kindergarten, knowing no English -- said she saw this decision as a continuation of her own parents' commitment to maintaining her bilingualism and biculturalism.

Her parents, who had an elementary-level education, had a "vision": "You have to stay bilingual; you have to keep your language and learn English because two languages are better than one and you'll always have more opportunities," she said. "That was a very strong message."

Fittoria's son Miguel later attended the University of Rochester, where he double majored in political science and psychology and also completed a master's degree in human development. He's now serving as DreamCatchers' program director, working with many English-language-learner students and Spanish-speaking families to navigate the school system.

Looking back, the Spanish immersion program engendered in Miguel both empathy and an appreciation of differences that play directly into his work at DreamCatchers, he said.

"The immersion program is a special kind of program that just changed everybody's values," he said. "It was a much more inclusive classroom and setting than what I saw other classrooms were like. Everybody's values were, 'Let's all bring in our cultures' a lot more than any other classroom was." (Miguels' mother even brought home a menorah one year at his request after the class talked about different religious traditions one winter.)

This has also informed his own understanding and value of multicultural teaching in settings beyond immersion programs.

"I think coming out of a classroom that was oriented toward ... that culture of bringing everybody's own culture into the classroom and making it even and equal -- that helped my conversations whenever I had talks about what it means to be an English-language learner not in an immersion program," he said. "What does it mean for a Spanish speaker to come into a classroom needing to learn English and maybe sometimes being held as not as important or maybe not as brilliant or not as capable?"

For two decades, creating positive cross-cultural attitudes, along with bilingualism and biliteracy and high academic achievement, have remained the Spanish immersion program's three core goals.

Students learn to read, write, add, subtract and the like first mostly in Spanish, with English instruction gradually increasing as they rise through higher grades. As a dual-immersion model, the classes are supposed to be a mix of native and non-native speakers to make sure students model for one another as much as the teacher does.

In kindergarten through second grade, 80 percent of classroom instruction is in Spanish, 20 percent in English. English instruction increases to 30 percent in third grade, 40 percent in fourth grade and about 50 percent in fifth grade. Administrators and teachers stress that immersion students get the same curriculum -- and same academic rigor -- that students in English-only classrooms receive.

"We have the same rigor, the same standards, the same expectations as every other student enrolled in Palo Alto," Fittoria said. "We don't let that go by."

Some early wariness about the program stemmed from concerns about young students learning core content and subjects in a new language. (This was soon disproved in Palo Alto and elsewhere, with both native and non-native speakers outperforming their English-only counterparts on standardized academic tests.)

Parents of the early cohorts remember having to become proactive champions for the program, coordinating parent and community education as well as constantly fundraising so that their children would have the necessary materials and the program could remain revenue neutral, they said.

Families who want to enroll their children in the program are also asked to commit to staying for six years. Last year's program brochure notes that current bilingual education research states that it can take up to seven to nine years to acquire a second language.

"That was the reason to have this massive parent and community education process because, let's be honest, we're a monolingual society and it's really hard for us to imagine bilingualism," said Chuck Merritt, one of the first parents in the program and now principal of Escondido. "In other parts of the world, it's not so hard to imagine because it takes place all the time. But here, it's really a community education process that had to take place."

Merritt, a longtime Spanish teacher, joined the district as a teacher at Palo Alto High School in 1993, the year before a district task force recommended Spanish immersion as the district's best option for bringing foreign language instruction to its elementary schools. He enrolled his daughter Emily in the Spanish immersion program during its second year. She went on to spend her junior year of high school in Spain, study linguistics in college, teach Spanish classes and learn Arabic and Mandarin.

"You're going to see this story repeated over and over again," Merritt said of his daughter's experience. "There are so many kids that came out of the program that are just in love with learning languages.

"As a monolingual society, we kind of have some invisible barriers around us -- this container model of the brain that is not supported by modern neuroscience, that you can only really have so many languages in your head. The experience that these kids have just sort of explodes that because they're not walking around with that container model about bilingualism in their head. They're fearless."

Merritt, too, has stayed closely tied to the Spanish immersion program and its values. He started this week as Escondido's new principal and the district's world-language administrator, a new position covering pre-K through high school. He said in his new role, he hopes to "build a real K-12 world language vision in the school district."

He said he hopes to foster stronger connections and a shared vision between the district's elementary immersion programs, including both Spanish at Escondido and Mandarin at Ohlone, with their immersion and world-language counterparts in middle school and beyond. (The district has long run a "bridge" Spanish immersion program -- that is, courses to serve as a bridge between elementary and high school language education -- at Jordan Middle School and this year is beginning a new Mandarin bridge class, also at Jordan.)

Merritt's hope aligns with parent, teacher and staff sentiment, reported in a recent research report the district commissioned last year, that the district's world-language programs are strong yet disjointed.

Merritt also sees immersion education as key in supporting the district's official vision to "support all PAUSD students as they prepare themselves to thrive as global citizens in a rapidly changing world."

This is certainly true in the case of Molly Kawahata, one of the first kindergarten students who said speaking Spanish helped her get internships and later jobs. During high school, she spoke Spanish with clients at a local law firm she was interning at and translated for doctors at a medical clinic where she volunteered. In college, she interned in the White House Department of Communications, translating Spanish documents and articles into English.

She reflected on the Spanish immersion program this week from her office in Washington, D.C., where she works as a policy assistant for energy and climate change for the White House Domestic Policy Council.

"It was an amazing way to teach students how to both pick up a new language in a way that would make them near-native speakers but also cultivating in them this internationally minded approach to dealing with issues and leading on them," said Kawahata, who is flying in from D.C. to attend the anniversary event this weekend.

In 2007, when the district's yet-to-be-approved (and very controversial) Mandarin immersion program came before the school board, Kawahata lobbied on its behalf as Gunn High School's school board representative. Almost a decade later, she found a statement she made in support of the Mandarin program from her seat at the dais:

"When I look at the first class of the Spanish Immersion, the people I've known since kindergarten, I see future leaders, future ambassadors -- I see the bridge between languages, cultures, and societies."

"Twenty years later," Kawahata wrote in an email this week, "I've seen my fellow classmates become journalists, educators, bioengineers, multilingual tech innovators -- leaders of today. And I have no doubt that the next generation of leaders are in their immersion classrooms in Palo Alto -- right now -- learning their second language. Our community continues to prepare the next generation of leaders to go out in the world and change it. And that they are."

The Spanish immersion program anniversary celebration will take place on Saturday, Aug. 22, 3-7 p.m., at Escondido Elementary School, 890 Escondido Road, Stanford. Organizers are collecting photos, memories and more from throughout the years. For more information, go to

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14 people like this
Posted by Addison parent
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 21, 2015 at 12:00 pm

It would be nice if the immersion programs are open to more students or at least SOME sort of second language classes open to ALL students beginning in kindergarten.

5 people like this
Posted by Thalia Anagnos
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2015 at 12:51 pm

As a parent of the first immersion class, I agree wholeheartedly with your vision of more access to second language language acquisition starting in kindergarten. I recommend that if you are interested in growth of the PAUSD immersion programs or some sort of second language acquisition in K-5, work together with the PAUSD School Board to help them realize this vision. Parents and teachers of both the Spanish Immersion and Mandarin Immersion programs were cohesive groups that worked closely with the school district to brainstorm solutions, raise funds, educate the community, and advocate for the program.

Like this comment
Posted by jerrey99
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 21, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Program is a waste of time and money. We need to have the children learn Science and Math [portion removed.] If kids study another language it should be Chinese because that is the future power nation on the planet.
Wasting time on these kinds of programs is why the Education system and children it graduates make the US 23rd in the world.

5 people like this
Posted by @jerrey99
a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2015 at 3:14 pm

"We need to have the children learn Science and Math [portion removed.]"

(1) Nothing keeps these kids from learning science and math while they are learning another language.

(2) Calling Spanish a "useless language"? Really? You have to go *there*?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm

The reason why US is #23 in the world has nothing to do with learning foreign languages and a lot to do with the short number of days in the school academic year and the short number of hours in the school academic day.

Countries that appear high in world ratings spend more days and more hours in the classroom and spend time learning one, if not more, foreign language from a very young age.

To do better in math and science, US schools should do a better job of teaching math and science and less time worrying about pc issues.

Like this comment
Posted by Statistics
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 21, 2015 at 8:30 pm

The census bureau announced on July 6, 2015 that Hispanics outnumber Caucasians in CA. The only other state with more Hispanics than Caucasians is New Mexico. Does anyone know the percentage of Asians in PA. I bet it's around fifty percent.

2 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 21, 2015 at 9:23 pm


Nope. Asians were 27 percent of the Palo Alto population according to the 2010 census. I'm sure the percentage has gone up, but it's not 50 percent because there hasn't been that much population turnover or growth since the city's pretty built out.

3 people like this
Posted by Molly K
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 22, 2015 at 9:28 am

Hi jerrey99 -- Just want to note three things for you:

1) I'd agree that learning Mandarin is a really valuable skill in today's global economy. That's why Palo Alto established a Mandarin Immersion Program in 2007, in addition to the Spanish Immersion Program. Both programs have been very successful.

2) The language immersion programs in Palo Alto are revenue-neutral, so it's hard to argue that the program is a waste of money.

3) Students learn science, math, and all other subjects in Spanish (as well as English). They actually end up scoring higher on standardized tests across the board -- including in science and math.

Appreciate your concern for the education of students in Palo Alto public schools. It's an important thing. The language immersion programs in Palo Alto are only enhancing the education of these students.

2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2015 at 9:47 am

Interesting to see the balanced comments responding to the ignorant comments. And people like to pretend that racism isn't a problem in Palo Alto! It's great that accurate information, once again, combats ignorance. But can it erode hatred and create respect?

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2015 at 11:56 am

The biggest problem with the immersion programs in Palo Alto is that they are for a few lucky lottery winners and nobody else gets anything. If FLES was available for Al. It would be more equitable. And this has nothing to do with racism

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