Uncle Tom can help fix Federal Way schools | Tito Hinojos

It was a rude wakening the day I was introduced as “Uncle Tito.”

I am the youngest of eight kids, so being Tio Tito to a bunch of nieces and nephews is not surprising. But being Uncle Tito to a child whose parents are white and with no family blood connection was definitely a shocker.

My friends did what I later learned was a common thing for the gringos: He introduced me to his baby son as a “favorite uncle.” Did that mean I was to spoil this kid?

With that same spirit of relationship, I refer to the Federal Way School District's superintendent, Tom Murphy, as Uncle Tom. He knows what it takes to provide the best and “spoil our kids.”

Recently, I read about this “immersion school” concept potentially becoming a reality in the district. It hit me as if it was another whiff of sanitized air with a sprinkle of some “brown sugar” fragrance. After the "invisible" aroma vanished, I thought about the words of Superintendent Tom Murphy: “So...fate or faith? I say faith, as I believe it has been faith, combined with hope, that nourished our spirit in the darkest days, that has brought us together over time, that has provided the light to sustain our work, and that has given us a place in the basic goodness of man is what sustains us as a community.”

Federal Way, tighten your seat belt because we are about to go "low-riding." The question is, will there be enough “power” to support the hydraulics? I can assure you that Tio Tom has our kids’ interests as a priority — and he passionately would love to spend our money for the betterment of our children’s education.

So what does “immersion” education, schooling or teaching mean? As excited as I am about this “new” concept, and as much as I applaud school board members for their desire to see it flourish in our district, we must clearly understand what the concept implies and clearly anticipate some outcomes, whether they be pros or cons.

Consider the following as “food for thought” as I share some perspectives from the "brown side."

• Who really benefits from this? It was said that budgets are always about priorities and where you want to spend your money. I am not a bit surprised that the integration of cultures is being brought to the forefront of agendas. This may be a new idea for Federal Way, but it is actually some of the broken pieces from an old ship that has been left to float in the sea of political self-improvising — and now have reached the shores of Federal Way.

• The immersion concept involves teachers and volunteers, preferably the parents of the students, by using the foreign language at all times. This was first used in Canada in the early 1960s, and was designed to enhance the education of the native-English speaking students by instructing them in a second language. In this model, the teaching approach developed the proficiencies of the native-English speaking students by teaching all the academic subjects in a second language.

• The goal was to increase cultural proficiency and become affluent in the second language; thus developing a higher level of academic achievement. According to one report, after three decades of studies, it was discovered that immersion students achieved as well as, or better than, non-immersion peers when tested on the standardized measures of verbal and mathematics skills administered in English.

• If this was to be implemented in Federal Way, who benefits? This is a great program for students of mainstream America. What about the students that speak the foreign language, in this case Latino students? A Latino family might move multiple times in the course of the school year, thus making it difficult to maintain the 50-50 balance and produce clear outcomes.

• If the immersion concept is a method of language, teaching that involves teachers and students using the foreign language at all times. It is assumed that immersion students will have consistent exposure to and support for English at home and in the community. A long-term commitment is essential, and parents need to understand that native-like proficiency in every skill area is unlikely.

• Parents need to provide their children with experiences that will enhance their English language and literacy development. For example, they should read to their children every day. But what happens with the Latino students whose parents both have to work and don’t speak affluent the English language?

• In recent weeks, the call for making English the official language for Washington state adds some further need of clarity about the immersion concept. Identify what you are calling it: Immersion school, project or a program? The difference: If it is a project, then you are looking for a quick fix with hope of attaining funding for a program that may covered with a Latino quilt. If it is a program, then there will be strong effort in making it happen until funds run out; then the program becomes obscured just like the past programs.

• White teachers comprise an overwhelming majority of the nation's teachers. Yet at the same time, they are the least likely to have had much experience with racial diversity, and they remain remarkably isolated. Non-white teachers as well as teachers in schools with high percentages of minorities or poor students are more likely to report that they are contemplating switching schools or careers.

• Who really benefits from this? It’s a win-win situation. The district can get federal funding. Students learning English will be better students as they continue on their education ladder. Community involvement/volunteerism will benefit the adult mentors. Becoming bilingual opens the door to communication with a larger expanded population, thus reaping the social and economic advantages, when made available.

• As a former high school Spanish teacher, I observed that learning a new language is not automatic for everyone. Its process is influenced by certain factors: The student’s personality, motivation, the expectations from the teacher and parental support are some of the key factors. We must not exclude two important elements that must be at the zenith of factors: The local school and support from the school district.

The bottom line: Success will only be accomplished if all active ingredients of these stakeholders are actively involved. A long-term commitment is essential in order to prevent the non-English student from falling through the cracks and having to battle the continuous uphill struggles of trying to be reckoned as equal.

And who better to lead us in this endeavor, whether it is “fate or faith” — Uncle Tom can do it.

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