Forty kindergarteners and first graders will be able to immerse themselves in learning Mandarin at Ohlone Elementary School starting August 2008.
In a historic vote Tuesday night the Palo Alto Board of Education voted 4-1 (board member Gail Price dissenting) to launch a controversial Mandarin immersion "choice" program within PAUSD as a way to head off a more expensive, time-consuming charter school.
It was the board's 20 th meeting on the issue.
Mandarin immersion will begin as a pilot program for three years during which district staff will monitor success, the board decreed.
Up to 80 students will be chosen through an informal lottery in which two Ohlone secretaries randomly pull names out of a bag with Principal Susan Charles present.
The board voted that approving the pilot program does not imply it will extend to middle school when the students reach there.
"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times," board member Mandy Lowell said of the heated debate over the program -- quoting from Charles Dickens' novel, "A Tale of Two Cities."
"I want this program to be successful," she said.
"I do support choice programs at this time," Dana Tom, board vice-president, said. "I am ready to put this issue behind us."
Lowell and Tom voted Jan. 31 against launching a Mandarin-immersion choice program, but over the last several months the pair indicated they would change their vote when they learned proponents of Mandarin immersion began pursuing a charter school.
Parent Faith Brigel reiterated her opposition to the program. "It's only going to be for a small number (of students), and I could feel jealous."
Opponent Duncan MacMillan urged the board members not to change their votes. MI "didn't make sense in January and it really makes no sense now," he said.
Board members addressed specific concerns raised by opponents.
Lowell said she understood opponents wanted the board to wait until a petition was filed, but she said she did not agree with opponents who believe a petition would not be filed or that the district could successfully fight it.
A charter petition would continue district disharmony, she added.
Board President Camille Townsend rallied behind Lowell and Tom saying she did not want to get into a discussion about how leaders must never change their minds.
A "very famous person recently said, 'We should stay the course," she said, referring to President George W. Bush. "I don't see virtue per se in not revisiting issues."
By the time the board came to making its decision most opponents had gone home, leaving proponents looking on with smiles.
"We're ecstatic. We're thrilled. We're happy," Grace Mah, a leading proponent and Santa Clara County Board of Education member said. "We want to move forward."
She said she wants to collaborate with the whole community and the Ohlone community on making MI a successful program.
"I feel good," MI proponent Shan Phillips said. "It's been a long road and there's a lot of work to be done and there's lot of healing (needed) in the community."
"It's been many years of effort. It's nice to see something good come out of it," proponent Jocelyn Tseng said.
District staff now will begin looking at placing up to four modular classrooms at Ohlone to house the pilot program. This summer, school staff will travel to China to participate in education opportunities there.
Ohlone Principal Susan Charles said her top priority for the program now is to work on implementing the new timeline.
"Now we can plan. We can work on the timeline we have in earnest -- and that's exciting," she said.