|Supporters of a Mandarin-immersion program failed to win the Palo Alto school board's support Tuesday night despite a strong last-ditch push by proponents and district staff.
After nearly five hours of discussion, the board voted 3-2 not to implement a Mandarin-immersion pilot program at Ohlone Elementary School this fall.
Board members Mandy Lowell and Gail Price and Vice President Dana Tom stuck with their earlier negative positions made at the Jan. 9 board meeting, but member Barb Mitchell shifted and decided to support the program. Board President Camille Townsend has voiced strong support all along.
"We have three choice programs with waiting lists," Lowell said. "I have to ask myself: Why would I be starting up a fourth waiting list instead of satisfying the current demand?"
More than 100 people crowded into the board room for the discussion and about 35 people spoke for and against the proposal. District staff members pressed hard to get the board majority, with Ohlone Principal Susan Charles particularly expressing support for the program.
"I think we can pull it off. All we would be doing is what we do in Mandarin," Charles said. "You have limited space and you have to say some people get in and some people don't. Say I apply to Stanford and I didn't get in. Should Stanford not exist?"
She was backed by Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook and Director of Elementary Education Becky Cohn-Vargas. The staff noted the program would be cost-neutral, with the estimated $44,000 for a three-year pilot covered by donations.
Charles also said there are two staff members at Ohlone, a lottery-based "choice" school already, who could teach the program so no new staff would need to be hired.
The pro and con speakers were civil, although both Lowell and Tom said they were disappointed by e-mails that had racial overtones to them.
When the final vote was tallied after midnight, there were about 50 members of the audience still present.
"It's certainly clear the district doesn't have strict adherence or open mindedness to consider choice," said parent Grace Mah, who founded Palo Altans for Chinese Education (PACE) in 2002 and has pushed for Mandarin immersion since. "If it's not offered in the district, it's very easy to think of outside options."
Mah said PACE will now consider pursuing a charter school that would be sponsored by the district.
Pauline Navarro, an active opponent of the program, said: "I just feel so sorry for the board. I just hope we can get past this."
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