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Full Immersion | Looking beyond the familiar at Oakland’s Escuela Bilingüe Internacional. | By Mary Eisenhart

Four years ago, not long after Irma George’s 4-year-old son Matteo had started pre-kindergarten at Escuela Bilingüe Internacional, she and her husband, Scott, were called in to discuss a schoolyard contretemps. They knew they’d picked the right school when they found Head of School Jon Fulk and Matteo cheerfully sharing their views of what had gone wrong and how to fix it—in Spanish.

Spanish immersion was the big draw when they first chose EBI, an independent bilingual school for pre-kindergarten through seventh grades, for their son. Neither parent speaks much Spanish, which they regret; Irma George grew up speaking Spanish in a Mexican-American family and started steadily losing the language after attending school in English. While about one-third of EBI’s students arrive speaking at least some Spanish, Matteo was not one of them.

“[The school meeting] was around Thanksgiving,” George says. “We’d been skeptical when they first told us he’d be speaking Spanish by Christmas.”

The founders of the school, which opened in September 2006, were parents who specifically wanted a Spanish immersion environment, which at that point was difficult to find beyond fifth grade in Northern California. There were Spanish bilingual programs already in place at Oakland and Berkeley public elementary schools; and bilingual options for older students in other languages such as French at the long-running private Ecole Bilingue in Berkeley, but almost no private schools offering a bilingual Spanish option. The main other local choice is Oakland’s Renaissance International School, a private school founded in 1992, which has an immersion program in Spanish, French, and English through eighth grade.

EBI’s founders envisioned bilingual education as a key component of an educational philosophy to nurture global citizens, instilling the ability to recognize and respect differences, and to consider problems from various perspectives. “When they have to find a different way to communicate,” Fulk explains, “they’re building neural paths, because they’re regularly trying to solve the problem of communicating in another language. Day to day, their brains have greater plasticity. They’re more flexible thinkers.

“Understanding that there are different ways to communicate ideas, and that they just need to find them, allows them to find different ways to solve problems,” he adds. “They’re growing up with the idea that there are multiple ways of understanding. There’s more than one perspective.”

And certainly one of the best ways to broaden young minds is to immerse them in other languages, which alerts them to life outside the United States.

In EBI’s pre-kindergarten program, 3- and 4-year-olds learn in Spanish all day. Kindergarteners and first-graders have an hour a day of reading and writing in English; in second grade, it’s two hours a day of English, then half English and half Spanish from third grade on. Also in third grade, all students start to study Mandarin (which is also available as an option starting in pre-K) four days a week.

“Once kids have English and Spanish and a certain level of competency in Mandarin, they can speak with many people in the world,” Fulk says. “And not only do our kids have exposure to Spanish, they have exposure to Spanish speakers from 14 different countries. In any one day our kids will probably have teachers from four or five different countries. So they’re getting lots of cultural information as well.” (As of the 2010 census, 12.8 percent of the U.S. population—37 million people over age 5—spoke Spanish at home; worldwide, Mandarin is the most-spoken language, approaching 900 million speakers, with English and Spanish strong but distant runners-up, according to Ethnologue, an online language research site.

The founders, and the families who came after them, specifically wanted Spanish immersion, for older children as well as younger ones; some came from Spanish-speaking families, some had lived in Spanish-speaking countries, some were interested in the culture. Public school programs, while excellent, have a mandated mission of getting English learners up to speed in an English-language system, and a required balance of 50 percent English learners to 50 percent English speakers; in many cases, far more Spanish learners want to enroll than spaces are available.

EBI bases its curriculum on the International Baccalaureate (known as IB), a Geneva-based foundation created to develop “the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” Founded in 1968, the IB works with more than 3,000 schools in 146 countries; in California, hundreds of public and private schools offer its programs—including the popular and well-regarded program at Berkeley High School.

Many colleges are now accepting IB high school classes interchangeably with AP classes for college credit, according to the college advice site College Confidential.

A crucial benefit of this global network, says Fulk, is that, similar to the open source software movement, participating teachers around the world share their experiences and best practices online. Their peers are welcome to adopt and adapt materials they like, but aren’t required to use any of it.

And, in contrast to what some people perceive as a testing- and memorization-intensive educational culture in public schools, IB focuses on inquiry-based learning. In an era of information overload, says Fulk, no one can possibly know everything: “What we need to focus on is problem solving, how well we can communicate what we do know. That’s the process the IB is focusing on: How do we form good questions about the world around us, how do we go about inquiry into those questions, how can we find the best answers, how do we collaborate with others through this process? How do we take action in our day-to-day lives that represent what we’re learning?”

Themes such as “Who am I?” and “How do we share the planet?” continue at age-appropriate levels throughout the grades; “Who am I?” for example, starts in pre-K with expressing likes and dislikes, and moves in later years to address the complexities of families, communities, and how kids see themselves in relation to these groups.

For some parents, the IB’s rigorous but supportive approach takes some getting used to, but the results have won them over. “In the standard public school I attended,” says mother Stacy Orff-Whitfield of Oakland, “we learned primarily by memorizing, by practicing, and were measured by testing memory of details. I’m very intrigued by how my son and other kids who attend EBI can apply knowledge from what they’ve learned to other situations. This is lifelong learning that will prepare them for the real world in a much broader way.”

Claire Chen-Carter of Oakland, whose 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter have been at EBI since age 3, adds: “It took me a couple of years to learn how IB works and what it does for your child’s learning. IB teaches our kids to learn how to learn, not learn facts. They are presented with new ideas, then they inquire and seek answers to their resulting questions, and then reflect on it in the end. Everything has a bigger context, and the kids understand how things fit together, versus learning in silos. And all the while, they work with each other, overcoming and accepting differences, and practicing how to present to an audience of adults and classmates. In the end, they will become open-minded critical thinkers who are more prepared for college and other challenges in the future.”


Starting out in 2006 with preschool and kindergarten, EBI has added a grade each year, with its first seventh-grade class starting this fall and its first eighth-grade class slated for fall 2014. In the process, it’s expanded beyond the original North Oakland campus, in the former parish school of St. Augustine Church on Alcatraz Avenue, to a building it’s renovating on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville, which now houses third through seventh grades.

In keeping with the IB program’s global outlook, a core value is diversity on many levels, to provide kids with the experience of living and working with many kinds of people. Classes are split evenly between girls and boys; kids come from differently structured families; some are only children, some have siblings at the school, some are adopted and don’t look at all like their parents. Fulk says most of the students and their families self-identify as of color or mixed race. About 30 percent receive some form of financial aid for the $18,400 yearly tuition, thanks to fundraising by parents.

Oakland resident and EBI board member Konata Khalfani, whose son, Kobe, is in his fourth year at EBI and entering second grade, says, “While being proficient in Spanish and high academic achievement is still a priority, the most important thing for Kobe is that he is happy and maintains his high self-esteem. EBI has and continues to create a supportive, loving community.”

And what happens when the inevitable day comes that kids graduate, or otherwise land in an environment that’s not nearly as nurturing, or does not have bilingual options? Some parents privately hope EBI keeps adding grades through high school.

“This is an extremely tight community of kids and families, and there could be an adjustment in terms of ‘How do I work in a world that’s not like that?’” Fulk says. “That’s something we’re being thoughtful about. We’re working with a number of high schools to make sure our kids are prepared and the schools know about them. My goal is that kids can go wherever they want to.”

One good local option: Berkeley High’s four-year IB diploma program, called Berkeley International High School.

Parents report that their kids who started with no Spanish now speak English and Spanish interchangeably, to the benefit of the whole family’s fluency. “Prior to our son starting at EBI, we almost exclusively spoke English at home,” says Orff-Whitfield. “Now, our son switches back and forth between languages regularly. We understand Spanish fairly well but may respond in English or broken Spanish.”

“Kobe’s mother and I each had three years of Spanish in either high school or college,” adds Khalfani. “We both speak Spanish with an accent, which Kobe doesn’t. The goal at EBI was that Kobe would learn to speak, read, write and know Spanish like a highly educated native Spanish speaker does.”

And so far, so good.

Mary Eisenhart, a freelance writer and editor in Oakland, majored in comparative literature because she liked all the different perspectives.


Students of the world: Kids in pre-kindergarten through seventh grades learn to speak fluent Spanish, and later Mandarin, at Oakland’s Escuela Bilingüe Internacional, while also following the International Baccalaureate curriculum. (From top: Making music, visiting an exhibit, at play, and in the library, .) Photos courtesy Escuela Bilingüe Internacional.











Looking outward: Second-grade students (including Matteo George, center) from Escuela Bilingüe Internacional demonstrate in support of immigration rights at the Rockridge BART station. The Oakland private school emphasizes learning how to be a responsible citizen and take action to influence society.











Ready position: Second-grader Kobe Khalfani (left) speaks Spanish with no accent, which delights his parents.