Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 22, 2014

Parents urge board to close Mandarin-immersion gap

Group hopes district will launch middle school Chinese language program

by Elena Kadvany

Six Palo Alto parents spoke to the Board of Education at its annual retreat last week, making passionate, personal pleas for the district's Mandarin immersion program to extend into middle school.

The group of parents submitted a proposal in February and are asking that the board institute this fall a middle school level pilot version of the once controversial and now successful program at Ohlone Elementary School, which began as a three-year pilot program in fall 2008. Since then, about 132 students have enrolled each year, with about 22 students in two sections each of three combination-grade classes, according to district Communications Coordinator Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley.

Palo Alto parent Grace Mah, who also serves on the Santa Clara County Board of Education, said expanding the program would fill a gap for students between elementary and high school and would also be aligned with one of the board's focused goals: strengthening middle school programs, specifically in mathematics and world languages.

The proposal suggests modeling the extension after the district's middle school Spanish immersion program with a focus on social studies and literature content taught in Mandarin. Mah describes the program as "cost neutral" for the district, as instructional materials are already available (purchased through a Foreign Language Assistance Program grant in 2006), and parents could raise funds for supplemental materials or ongoing costs. The proposal suggests that Mandarin teachers at Gunn or Palo Alto high schools could serve as the program's teachers.

In advocating for language immersion in public middle school, Mah said that private after-school or weekend language programs can be less intensive or are inconsistent. Some are not accredited and they are insufficient in achieving full fluency.

Mah told the board that she recently surveyed 62 parents to gauge their interest in having a middle school program and, if so, whether it should be an after-school program or part of the regular school day.

Respondents indicated they would be willing to transport their children to JLS or Jordan middle schools for an after-school program.

Other parents spoke to the impact the Ohlone program has had on their children — with one parent verging on tears.

"It's really transformed our family," said Kathy Howe, whose son, Sam, is an incoming third-grader with two years in the Ohlone program. Howe said neither she nor her husband speaks Mandarin. "Because Sam learned Mandarin so early in his life, it's really a part of the fabric of who he is. It brings tears to my eyes," she said. "I'm an educator in the community and also a parent, and I would like all Palo Alto parents to have this opportunity that Sam has to have another language."

Erik Lassila, whose daughter just graduated from the Ohlone program and son is enrolled in it, said having his children learn Mandarin is key to preparing them for a global future, personally and professionally.

"Now we're kind of struggling with ... how does she continue her Chinese skills? We want her to have that gift through her lifetime," he said.

Both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools offer Mandarin classes, but the parents all pointed to the detriment a three-year gap can have on students learning a foreign language.

"You created something special and important for the district, and now is the opportunity to sustain that," parent Matthew Kohrman told the board. "There are kids whose intellectual skills in this language could disappear. ... This is an opportunity for the connective tissue to sustain that, to pursue it and build a program that will be known around California and nationwide as one that works and that creates human beings, world citizens that make the community proud and go on as adults to use those languages."

Board President Barb Mitchell and Superintendent Max McGee both said they would discuss the topic in the coming weeks and follow up with the parents.

"We talked yesterday about preparing students for careers that don't exist and how they need to be prepared not just for global competition but, frankly, global collaboration," said McGee, who spent last year as head of an international school with 20 Chinese and 20 American students.

"It is important to sustain it," he added. "All of you made good points. We'll take it under consideration and act quickly on it."

Online Editor Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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