Opposition forms to Mandarin-immersion idea
District feasibility study indicates financial viability of program, but location of program is uncertain
For the first time, opponents of a proposed Mandarin-language immersion program in Palo Alto's public schools crammed the district's board room this week in a show of force for neighborhood schools.
The parents wore all shades of green, distinguishing themselves from Mandarin-immersion supporters clad in bright red. They said a new lottery-based "choice" program would displace their children from beloved neighborhood schools, increase traffic and violate the terms of Measure A, a parcel tax voters approved last year.
They submitted a petition with more than 500 signatures against the program to the school board.
"The neighborhood schools are the true jewels in Palo Alto," said Anja Finseth, whose two children attend Barron Park Elementary School. "As a German, I would not expect or encourage a German-immersion program. It's not the job of the public school district to teach my child my own language."
More than 100 people, split 50/50 between supporters and opponents, packed the meeting room Tuesday night to hear the results of a program-feasibility study conducted by the district. The board members did not discuss the report this week, deciding to defer its full-scale debate to the Jan. 9 meeting when a staff report and recommendations will be provided.
The feasibility study -- paid for with a $66,000 donation from Palo Altans for Chinese Education (PACE) -- concluded that a Mandarin-immersion program is possible to implement by fall 2007, save for finding a location to house it. However, opponents harshly criticized the study for glossing over the issues and lacking statistics.
"Let's be careful about over-interpreting the feasibility study. It was funded by an organization that is clearly committed to Mandarin immersion," said Jeff Smith, who has two children in the district.
PACE founder and Palo Alto parent Grace Mah said it wasn't unreasonable for PACE to provide the funds for the study.
"Unless the money was funded, it wasn't even going to happen because the district is strapped for funding," she said. "We were not guaranteed any results. They looked at the pros and cons. How can it not be feasible when all these other people are doing it?" she said.
Mah also said opponents are blowing the funding aspect for a new program out of proportion when the district has recently accepted much larger donations for its two high schools' athletic departments.
In May, the school board voted 3-1 to research what it would take to implement a new choice program -- modeled after the current Spanish-immersion program -- for the 2007-'08 school year. Board member Gail Price dissented, saying it was fiscally irresponsible for the district to bring in such a program now. Board member Mandy Lowell abstained.
The proposal is to start a Mandarin-immersion program with two kindergarten classes and one first-grade class next year, eventually expanding into a kindergarten through fifth-grade program that would continue into middle school. The high schools are piloting beginning courses in Mandarin this year.
According to the study, start-up costs for the initial program would run about $33,000, or $11,000 for each classroom, funding textbooks, equipment and staff training. The only ongoing cost of the program would be an annual $1,280 stipend for a Mandarin-speaking staff supervisor, according to the study.
About $15,000 was left over from PACE's donation for the feasibility study, which has been earmarked for the program's start-up costs if approved. PACE has essentially agreed to fund the program.
The three district administrators who developed the study -- Marilyn Cook, associate superintendent of educational services; Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of elementary education; and Norman Masuda, instructional supervisor of world languages at Paly -- visited various schools' immersion programs to generate their estimates.
Opponents are not convinced, however, that the program would be cost neutral after the initial expenses.
"I was shocked at the $10,950 number. To me, when I take my car into the repair shop, it costs half that," said Cindy Campbell, who chose to send her children to their neighborhood school after they won seats in the Spanish-immersion program.
Many parents also said they felt duped into passing a parcel tax for the district last year.
"When we passed Measure A, many promises were made to bring back programs," said Pat Markevitch, an Addison Elementary School parent. "I haven't seen that yet so why are we bringing on a fourth choice program?"
The location of a new choice model has been problematic. The district is currently reviewing where it draws its boundaries for school attendance, which complicates matters for Mandarin immersion. If a program were to be adopted, the study indicated that it might be housed at Barron Park or Juana Briones elementary schools temporarily until a 13th site is opened, possibly Garland school, or additional classrooms are added to current campuses.
Barron Park and Juana Briones were targeted because of their low student populations.
Parent Julie Lythcott-Haimes said a choice program would disrupt the small communities of those schools.
And because choice schools draw children from across Palo Alto, opponents say a new one would increase the traffic in their neighborhoods.
"We were nominated two years ago for being an outstanding biking and walking community," said Karen Walker, who has three children in the district. "Are we going backwards?"
The school board will discuss the proposed Mandarin-immersion program again at its Jan. 9 meeting and vote Jan. 30. To view the feasibility study, visit www.pausd.org.
Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.