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Immersed in Japan at John Stanford

John Stanford's portrait greets visitors to the school. The former superintendent was a visionary who saw strength in diversity.

Former Seattle Superintendent of Schools John Stanford was a visionary who saw diversity as a strength, not an obstacle to be overcome. His legacy lives on at John Stanford International Elementary School in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, where 468 students are enrolled in the Spanish and Japanese immersion programs. Since the language immersion programs started in 2000, Seattle Public Schools have educated hundreds of students in the Japanese Dual Language Immersion program. Students spend half the day with an English-speaking teacher and the other half with a Japanese speaking teacher. The North American Post sat down to chat about the school with some enthusiastic parents of students in the Japanese immersion program and Dr. Michele Anciaux Aoki, international education administrator for Seattle Public Schools and a linguist who was part of the planning committee for John Stanford International School. Joining the conversation were parents Heidi Wrightsman, Deilyn Osby Sande, Yuki Sofronas, and Emily Menon Bender.

Interview by Bruce Rutledge


Why choose Dual Language Immersion education for your children?

Heidi: Half my family is Japanese, so it wasn’t just a good academic choice; it is inspiring and deeply meaningful to be here. When my son was born, I wanted to make sure he had Japanese in his life. As soon as I heard about John Stanford, I knew it was where he should be. John Stanford has a strong academic reputation, and along with the language learning, I really wanted the extra cultural learning for him.

Emily: There is definitely cultural immersion as well as language immersion here. That is a very rich part of the experience. I think one of the big strengths in this school is that there are two languages being taught here, so not only do they get immersed in Japanese language and culture, they also get to see what’s going on with the Spanish side of the school. It’s not just us and Japan, it’s us and the world.

Yuki: I was a teacher in Japan, and all the students study English, but it is hard to make it feel natural for them. They study a lot, and Japan spends a lot of money, but still, it doesn’t get to the point where the kids feel natural with it as a second language. When I was in L.A., I visited an immersion school and I was so impressed how the kids pick up the language naturally. When I heard about the Japanese immersion program in Seattle, I was like, OK, let’s go there! I volunteer a lot at school, and I see the kids pick up words naturally in just a couple of months.

Deilyn: It does open up your world. Just the idea that there are options and different ways of looking at things and doing things expands your horizon. It’s very valuable.


Your husband is from Osaka. Does he speak to your twins in Japanese?

Deilyn: Yes.


And do your twins speak to each other in Japanese?

Deilyn: Very rarely, unless they don’t want mom to understand. They think it’s very funny that mom doesn’t speak Japanese!

Where did the idea of Dual Language Immersion (DLI) education come from?

Michele: It’s been around for 50 years. What we think of as immersion education came out of Anglo parents in French Canada who realized that their children would be at a tremendous disadvantage if they were not fluent in French. They started language immersion programs in French for those students, and a lot was learned in those early years.

Many of those early schools were what we now call one-way immersion. The students are English speakers and they are all going to be immersed in French, say, so that they become fluent in French. A lot of programs that were like that around the country excluded children who spoke the language at home.

What began happening was that people started getting interested in maintaining a language. So, if you were a Spanish speaker, you could have Spanish time and English time. There has been a lot of research in the last 20 years that shows that the most effective model is actually one where you have students who are contributing in both languages, that two-way model so the students are learning not just from the teacher but from each other.

Heidi: Actually, since the school became an option (open enrollment) school four years ago, we’re seeing more native speakers enrolling. It’s happening in both the Spanish and Japanese classes.

How did the Dual Language Immersion program come to be established here?

Michele: What brought this school into existence was when John Stanford came to this district in 1995 as superintendent. He was a retired Army general, and he had a very different global experience about the value of languages, that they could mean life or death. When he went around to the schools, people kept telling him, oh my gosh, we have 130 languages, how are we supposed to teach these kids? They don’t even speak English. His response was, you are talking about a huge asset. These kids all come with
other languages that can be so enriching to us as a country whether it’s in security or business or economics. Whatever it is, we need language capacity to be part of the world.

He shifted the whole dialogue from, “that’s a deficiency because they don’t have English yet” to “this is an asset.” How do we create an environment where everybody is a language learner? His vision was an international school where everyone became a language learner. He would talk about it, and at one meeting, Karen Kodama, who was the principal at TOPS Elementary School, said she wanted to get involved. He put her in charge. At the time, the district was losing students. We were closing schools, so we were trying to find something that would make people want to come to this district.

Children learn to connect the dots between cultures at John Stanford They explore similarities between the Mexican Day of the Dead and Japanese Obon traditions

Kodama put in for a federal magnet grant to establish an international school. At the time, we knew language would be part of it, but no one really knew what it would be like. There were several years of planning, and it was supposed to be a K-12 school, but the district couldn’t find the location to do that.

The new international school opened in September 2000. It had a transitional year at the Lincoln High School site, with Karen Kodama as the principal. And then it came back to a remodeled Latona Elementary School building, and was renamed for Supt. John Stanford, who had passed away from leukemia a before the school could open. Now we’re coming full circle with the re-opening of Lincoln as a Dual Language Immersion High School Pathway. (Editor’s note: Lincoln High School will reopen in the Wallingford neighborhood in September 2019.)

Supt. John Stanford was very attuned to the business community. Karen did a survey, and the business community said, right now we really need Spanish and Japanese, and in about five years, we’ll need Mandarin Chinese. The decision to teach Japanese came from the business community, but Karen Kodama is a sansei (3rd generation Japanese American), and many people on the planning committee recognized that the Japanese community here had a lot taken away from it. The idea was that not only was Japanese important to the business community in the late 90s and 2000s, but it had a very important cultural significance to this region.


What would you say to a family considering Dual Language Immersion programs when they have no heritage ties to that language?

Emily: It’s about global citizenship. This exposure to the idea that there is more than one way of doing things. Once you have that flexibility, once you’ve lived another way of doing things, then you have these tools and can ask, how can I make my society better? How have your children changed through the experience of a Dual Language Immersion education?

Heidi: I wasn’t aware of how much my son had learned until my mom came to visit. Every time she visits now, it unlocks in him the conversations he can have, that I couldn’t have. To see them talking just reaffirms all the decisions we made. For him to have that relationship with my mom is just priceless.

Deilyn: Similarly, we alternate between going to Japan and meeting in Hawaii on spring break, and in both situations, my girls serve as interpreters for me. I love that. They are so proud. That’s a confidence they can take other places.

We are also Jewish, and we can connect things like Oshogatsu and Passover. It’s like a cultural bridge for them. They have an understanding of being many things at one time. They call it intersectionality now. I didn’t have that word when I was growing up.

Emily: My family doesn’t have these kinds of heritage connections to Japan, but there’s another kind of benefit that shines through. Takako-sensei (Takako Reckinger) organizes a trip to Japan after the fifth grade where they get to stay with host families and parents get to tag along as chaperones. The kids are roughly 12 years old at that time, and to see them navigating in a country where for many of them it is the first time they have been there, maybe the first time they’ve been out of the United States, and they have the skills to do it. It’s such an enormous confidence boost.

On a lighter note, my sons were doing potty talk at the dinner table, and my husband decided to crack down on that. So, they switched to Japanese. My husband could tell they were still doing potty talk in Japanese, but, you know, they earned it.

Yuki: I had an exchange in Ohio. In the textbooks, we were taught that the US was a melting pot, and everyone mingled together. But when I got to Ohio and saw the cafeteria, all the tables were grouped by race. It was the opposite of what I had learned.

What we found at the International school was some of the parents don’t have any heritage connection to Japan, but they want to learn about Japan and talk to me about it. This whole community is mixed and together. If the kids get that mindset at a young age, a lot of problems we see in the newspaper can be solved.

Dr Michele Anciaux Aoki middle stands with John Stanford parents from left Heidi Wrightsman Deilyn Osby Sande Yuki Sofronas and Emily Menon Bender


About John Stanford International School
John Stanford International Elementary School in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood is a public school that specializes in Japanese and Spanish Dual Language Immersion education. It is an option school (with district-wide open enrollment), but students who enter the school from second grade on must pass a simple assessment in the Japanese or Spanish language. In June, when there is room, enrollment opens to people living outside of Seattle. For more information, please visit the school’s website. Note that McDonald International Elementary School, located just to the north of John Stanford, is another option school that also offers Japanese and Spanish Dual Language Immersion. They both feed into Hamilton International Middle School, and starting in fall 2019, the Dual Language Immersion students will have a guaranteed pathway to attend Lincoln High School.


To learn more about enrolling in Seattle Schools’ Japanese Dual Language Immersion programs, please go to the Admissions Fair 10 am – 2 pm January 19, 2019 at Mercer International Middle School. If you’d like to receive a summary handout, please email Dr. Michele Anciaux Aoki maaoki@seattleschools.org