A Public Immersion Program for Pasadena

Two French-English bilingual classes will open next August at the Pasadena, California, school district. In a state where public schools are rare, this free program is quick to seduce parents.
© Jamie Pham

Gary Prézeau is from Sherbrooke in the Quebec province. His wife, Kerry, is Australian. Based in Pasadena, California, since 2001, the couple endeavor to raise their son “in a bilingual environment.” Their five-year- old son is enrolled in Kindergarten at the International School of Los Angeles. But at almost 20,000 dollars a year, the private school is “a little too expensive,” admit the two parents.

The residential suburb where the Prézeaus live, north of Los Angeles, lacks public immersion programs. The bilingual magnet school in neighboring Glendale has a “never-ending waiting list.” In this region of California, state schools are rare. When the State finally ended school segregation in 1970, parents who could afford to took their children out of public schools and enrolled them into private ones. With enrollment dropping, public schools began to decline – something that continues today.

Pasadena Unified School District, which covers Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre, manages 28 state establishments, including 19 elementary schools. To compare, these three towns have a total of 164 private establishments. Six public schools have closed since 2006, and the number of children enrolled there continues to fall. The district welcomed 18,897 students last his year, and it is estimated that that number will fall to less than 15,000 pupils in five years’ time.

In order to attract more pupils from outside districts, dual-language immersion programs in Spanish and Mandarin were launched in Pasadena in 2008. Approached by Kerry Prézeau and a committee of parents, the school district superintendent was “immediately” interested in the idea of a French-English bilingual program. The inaugural classes will be Kindergarten and first grade, beginning in August at Altadena Elementary School. Around 20 pupils are already enrolled. Kerry and Gary Prézeau’s son will be in the first-grade class. “Many francophone and non-francophone families showed interest,” remarked Hilda Ramirez-Horvath, the spokesperson for the school district.

Total Immersion

Enrollment is still open. The Pasadena school district’s aim for each bilingual class is to reach equal parts of francophone and non-francophone students. There will be total immersion in Kindergarten and first grade: 90% of teaching will be in French. The remaining time will be used to consolidate students’ knowledge in English. As the program develops – along to the rhythm of a new level each year – the English-taught curriculum will gradually increase until a “50/50” balance is reached in fifth grade, in 2021. Students will then be given the opportunity to continue their bilingual education at the Blair High School in Pasadena, which offers the International Baccalaureate.

Christy Denes is delighted. An Altadena resident married to a Frenchman, she has enrolled her seven-year old son in the bilingual first-grade class. He is currently in first grade in a Pasadena private school. He will repeat the school year so he can benefit from the new immersion program. “Parents can no longer afford to pay private school fees,” bemoans the mother of two. “These public immersion classes are wonderful!”