According to the United States Census, between 2000 and 2013, the number of foreign-born residents in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County increased by over 20% and 27%, respectively. While the share of the immigrant population is still lagging behind the national average (8% in Pittsburgh vs. 13% national average), we are finally seeing positive net migration after many years of the opposite.
With this trend of more foreign-born residents, we are also seeing an increase in demand for foreign language education—specifically bilingual school options for children. Mandarin and Spanish are two of the most widely spoken languages in the world so it’s no surprise that two of the most established bilingual schools in the City are immersion programs in those languages.
La Escuelita Arcoiris, a Spanish immersion preschool in Squirrel Hill was founded 15 years ago and started with only seven kids. Today, the school has five classrooms with over 60 kids enrolled. The Pittsburgh Chinese School, a weekend Chinese immersion program that was founded in 1977, has expanded into a school that offers programming for students in K-12 and has 300 students enrolled.
Thomas Buell, Director of Development at Global Pittsburgh, an organization that aims to connect Pittsburgh to the international community, is inspired by these trends. “I consider it an encouraging sign that Pittsburgh is becoming a more international city. More schools that offer foreign language learning brings benefits to all the people of Pittsburgh.
“We have a global economy and relate to a global culture. The more awareness our children have of this as they grow, the better they will be in their education and careers.”
The Pittsburgh Public Schools have magnet programs that offer foreign language exposure. For elementary students, Linden offers German and Mandarin, Fulton offers French, and Liberty and Philips offer Spanish. Obama, an International Baccalaureate program offers middle school programs for Japanese, French, German and Spanish.
Tara McElfresh, whose children have been attending Linden since Kindergarten, is pleased with the school’s German language program. “Kids who attend Linden from K through 5th expect to have some working proficiency in German—enough so that they can “get by” when traveling to a native-speaking country. My daughter, who is in fifth grade, certainly has that.”
The benefits of a bilingual education are not limited to its utility in communication. Many recent studies have shown that bilingualism has profound effects on brain development, “improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”
This year, a new group of instructors from the University of Pittsburgh have founded an Italian language school that aims to provide students with educational programming that will be accredited both in the United States and the European Union.
Angela Hertz, co-founder and Executive Director of La Scuola D’Italia Galileo Galilei, says that aside from fostering bilingualism, the school also looks to preserve immigrants’ native language speaking abilities. “We have noticed a loss of language skills in one generation. My co-founders and I are Italians and yet we needed to study and live in Italy for some time to perfect our language ability. We want to pass that on to the next generation.”
The group currently offers extra-curricular programming to 80 adults and children and holds classes at Winchester Thurston in Shadyside. La Scuola is looking to open a preschool and early childhood immersion school within two years with a vision to offer elementary and middle school programming soon thereafter.
With a fast growing foreign-born population, immersion schools are planning for a significant increase in demand in the next few years. Ellen Tafel, La Escuelita’s Director of Operations, says the school is actively planning for the future. “We have an established high-quality preschool immersion program,” she says. “However, we want to be able to identify ways we can continue to operate and offer our program to a more diversified clientele—primarily underserved native Spanish speakers in the Pittsburgh region.”