Portland Public Schools’ Japanese Magnet Program was founded in 1989 with two kindergarten classes at Richmond Elementary, an urban, public school in Portland, Oregon. 60% of the student body is white and over 20% are of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. Since its inception, the program has been expanded to a full K-5 sequence, serving approximately 300 students.
It is a model early language program, using partial immersion as the central organizing principle: children spend half the day learning in Japanese and half learning in English. The language curriculum encompasses oral language, written language and culture, with clear emphasis on children not only learning how to read and write, but also how to understand aurally and speak. Each grade level is team-taught, with both English and Japanese instructors. Language proficiency is assessed using one-on-one interviews, which are videotaped and monitored at the end of each year. By the 5 th grade, students are assessed according to Oregon Japanese Oral Proficiency Assessment procedures, resulting in a 15-minute ratable performance sample. Richmond’s Japanese Magnet Program has become a premier example of how immersion programs, particularly in the early grades, produce much stronger levels of language competency than other approaches to language learning.
Japanese culture is woven throughout all disciplines: math, reading, writing, social studies, language arts, music and art through the study of Japanese holidays. Students perform skits, songs and poetry in Japanese during all-school morning assemblies, and some students have been invited by the Japanese Consulate to speak as part of an annual speech contest. Students participated in fundraising drives and wrote letters of sympathy after the earthquake in Niigata, Japan, and in response to the tsunami. Richmond Elementary families also have the opportunity to host Japanese exchange students and interns from sister schools in Japan, who spend time in Richmond Elementary classrooms. Oya No Kai, a parent-run non-profit organization, raises funds for an annual trip to Japan for 5 th grade students. Students learn how to produce Japanese characters by typing combinations of English letters on computers and create multi-media self-portraits to share with their email pen pals in Japan.