Immersing in Emeryville

The East Bay German International School appears to be thriving in its new location.


Photo courtesy of Eats Bay German International School

In the heart of Emeryville, a little bit of Deutschland is flourishing. At the former site of the Anna Yates Elementary School on 41st Street near San Pablo Avenue, the East Bay German International School, or EBGIS, is just finishing its first full year in its new location.

This pre-K through eighth-grade German immersion school appears to be flourishing in its new spot, and it’s one of a number of foreign-language immersion schools that have gained popularity in recent years in the East Bay. Parents increasingly recognize that children often have difficulty holding on to a language as they grow into adulthood unless they went to an immersion school.

Many of the parents at the EBGIS are German natives, but many are not. Parent Kay Naumann, for example, is a native East Bay resident, and her fifth-grader was not speaking German at home. For Naumann, it was about language immersion, but not necessarily about German.

“We knew that we wanted a foreign language. We looked at German, Spanish, French; we didn’t look at Chinese, only because I lived in China and knew that would be a big stretch for me. The German school is the one that jumped out,” said Naumann. “What really impressed us was the teachers. The qualifications jumped out as you walked into the classroom. What it takes to become a teacher in Germany is pretty intensive. These teachers are great.”

The school’s German unique approach to education is exemplified by the fact that kindergarten is seen as an extension of preschool with guided play and no lesson plans. Students don’t start with academics until first grade. The idea, said Naumann, is that kids can polish their social and emotional skills in kindergarten, and then jump into the day-to-day classroom work when they’re ready.

Another big difference appears in middle school, said Julia Rickers, who has a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader in the school. Rickers, who is a native German speaker, said that, “in middle school, there is a bigger focus on science. They have physics, chemistry, and biology in fifth grade. Sometimes they do projects with all the middle schoolers. In German, they have a poetry workshop where all the middle school kids work together in mixed age groups. At this school, you see at recess second-graders playing with seventh-graders.”

The school moved to its new location during the 2016-2017 holiday break, with the parents working hard to pack everything for the move to Emeryville. The EBGIS was founded as one of three chapters of the German International School of Silicon Valley, or GISSV; the other two locations being in Mountain View and San Francisco. At the outset, the school’s original East Bay location was in Kensington, then it moved in Berkeley, into the historic Hillside school, before forces aligned to necessitate the move to Emeryville.

Chief among those motivations was the Berkeley site’s need for earthquake retrofitting. Because the required repairs were extensive, the parents and teachers of the school made two important decisions that would change the school’s future while keeping an East Bay German immersion school presence and alleviating GISSV of the retrofit expense.

First, parents decided to secede from the GISSV and form their own nonprofit school entity. Second, they raised the funds to move to Emeryville. For a more established school, this would have meant a lot of work for the faculty and staff of the school. For the nascent EBGIS, however, that responsibility went to the parents who became the main party steering the process.

Sasha Becker, whose children are in pre-K and first grade at the EBGIS, is also a native German speaker. He said that when he first saw the school in Berkeley, it was surrounded by scaffolding. He said he was told this was because of the earthquake retrofit. The scaffolds were still there when the school moved last year.

“We were there for many years,” said Becker. “The school that was there in Berkeley was the GISSV.” He added that parents ultimately decided that it was better for the school to become independent.

Rufus Pichler was a board member of the GISSV, and he has been one of the leaders piloting the EBGIS’ growth. He left the GISSV board of directors and joined the EBGIS’ board. Pichler has two children in the EBGIS, one in first grade and one in fourth.

At home, his family is trilingual, speaking Japanese, German, and English. Pichler has been in the United States for 19 years, and he appreciates his kids being able to use German on a daily basis at school. Traditional language classes may teach kids how to order in restaurants, said Pichler, but, here, they discuss books, science, and technology, all in German.

That’s not to say no English is spoken here. The kids also take English class, art, and American geography classes in English. But German is the dominant language for most of the school day. This was a big reason Pichler chose the GISSV and eventually the EBGIS. “Academics were one requirement, language was the other. We started raising our kids in German and English to begin with. One thing that’s pretty clear is that the kids won’t maintain the language if it’s not an immersion exposure,” said Pichler.

Pichler said that, of their teachers, “about 80 percent are from Germany. The English teacher is from here, and the art teacher is an artist and an English speaker. Otherwise, we have Spanish teacher who speaks Spanish and English, and she teaches some of the geography classes with the local topics in English.”

A can-do spirit also permeates the EBGIS, where the parents are molding the school into exactly the shape they want.

“Really the goal right now is to finish the enrollment,” said Pichler, speaking about their work to enroll 100 students for the next school year. Currently, the student body is 80-strong. “We’re in the middle of the spin-off process, which started in January 2017. Since then, we have the entity tax exempt status, and we just signed a 10-year lease here.”

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