Richmond Elementary School: one of the few true Japanese immersion programs in the US

By | March 2, 2016

We recently went to Oregon to visit some friends and decided to check out a special school we had recently discovered: Richmond Elementary School (which I’ll abbreviate here as RES). Richmond, for those of you not familiar with the area, is a neighborhood of Portland in the southeast part of the city.

Japanese immersion programs are relatively rare in the U.S., with over half of the states lacking one. While RES’s Japanese immersion program is technically a “partial immersion program”, the great thing about this school is that they do a full half day in Japanese, taught by Japanese teachers. From what I understand, other immersion programs will start with a much smaller fraction of the student’s time learning Japanese, possibly only 10% when they start in Kindergarten. Besides the teachers themselves, they also have assistants who are from Japan, and other facilities to help with learning Japanese including a library with a pretty large section of books in Japanese. The 5th graders even have the option of going on a class trip to Japan, which we were told is usually around 2 weeks and allows them to really see Japanese culture up close.

They do a full spectrum of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in Japanese during half of the day, and the other half is done in English. One thing we were told is that the school tries very hard to make sure the students’ English abilities don’t fall behind, which is a problem encountered in other similar programs. Some ways they do this is by having a shorter lunch break (only around 20 minutes), a pretty heavy homework load, and less extracurricular activities that are not directly related to increasing Japanese or English skills. While they do have some things like gym class, you won’t find as great as a variety of activities as other schools. The students’ test scores seem to prove their abilities are still competitive with other schools, so it looks like the mix that RES has formulated is working well.

One other great thing about RES is that it is actually a public school, so the tuition is completely free (though this does not include some optional activities like the trip to Japan which we were told could be pretty expensive). However, due to a limitations on the number of students they can accept, they hold a lottery each year for kindergarten enrollment, which I believe begins around March, and the results are reported sometime around May. The kindergarten class this year has roughly 118 students, though is actually 4 independent classes. From what we understood from talking to school’s staff, roughly one-third of those who applied last year were allowed to get in. While this number be high compared to some schools (and could change year by year), having any amount of uncertainty in your child’s future is not necessarily a good thing, especially regarding education. The good news is that there are a few classes of people who get higher priority for the lottery or automatic entrance, including younger siblings of children already enrolled, those who live in Portland (you can apply from a different city of Oregon and still have a chance to get in, however), and those children who speak Japanese at home as their first language. Even if you don’t make the lottery you also have an option to get an special exception for your child (if any slots are available), and the better you can prove this school is right for your child, the better chances you’ll have to be excepted in.

While I believe they may let in a few students enroll starting at 1st or 2nd grade, after that it would be difficult for a child to join because of all the catchup required for the Japanese material missed in previous grades.

While the school facilities itself are quite old (this is not necessarily a bad thing), the teachers and staff we talked to all seemed to put the children’s education as first priority, and looked very competent and caring. While we only spoke with the principle for a few minutes, she also seemed very genuine and knowledgeable.

There are generally two classes of parents that want their child to attend a immersion program for a foreign language: those who want them to do it to increase their future opportunities and broaden their education, and those where one or both parents speak that language and want their son or daughter to be brought up learning more about their home country. Of course, some parents can also be a mix of these two categories.

Based on what I have seen of this school, I think it would be a great fit for either type of parent. However, I would like to caution that your child may not necessarily become fluent in Japanese after graduating from this school. Though this is totally my opinion, just based on touring the school and briefly viewing a few of in-session classes, I got the feeling that kids are not exactly forced to speak in Japanese, except maybe for certain presentations and assignments. For example, we observed some students speaking English in one of the Japanese immersion classes, though we were told by one parent that the teacher will respond to students in Japanese if they are asked in English. Like anything at that age, children often do what their parents say, without their full consent or understanding, and this type of immersion program is no different.

Ultimately, what will determine if the children become truly fluent is the their motivation to learn and attraction to Japanese and Japan’s culture, which is influenced by the content taught in the classes, but also by their parents. I think students who graduate this school can be broken into two categories: those have an mechanical grasp of Japanese grammar, reading and writing, but no real desire to keep learning the language, and those who are really into the language and want to truly master it, or at least keep learning it just because it’s fun to do so.

If children really like Japanese, there is the chance to move onto a special middle school and later a high school which both provide a continuation to the Japanese immersion program. While the language exposure stops being 50/50 after elementary school, you can make the argument that a majority of the student’s communication skills are learned in elementary school.

Because of this, if your child already knows Japanese and attends this school, there is a good chance that he or she will have stronger Japanese skills than many of the the other students. This means your child may not be learning as much as the other students in a sense, but compared to a non-immersion school which is 100% English, it is a great way to keep their Japanese ability. Over time, I have talked to enough parents where one or both of them came from another country, but their child had difficulty keeping up with their family language as they got older.  Ultimately, true fluency has to be a choice of the child him or herself, but I feel that an immersion school like this gives children much better odds to carry their foreign language skills into adulthood and make them a permanent part of their lives. Also, students that already know Japanese would have opportunities to help their classmates out more with that language, and take more lead roles in certain situations.

For more information about Richmond Elementary Schools and the other schools that continue the Japanese immersion program, check here:

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One thought on “Richmond Elementary School: one of the few true Japanese immersion programs in the US

  1. ErrantGirl

    Our primary school (also a public school) runs a similar program in Brisbane, Australia.

    Does anyone have any thoughts/experiences with setting up immersion education programs? Or any examples of it being done at a district (i.e. multiple primary schools feeding into a immersion high school) level?


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