Hundreds of parents packed a room at Ohlone Elementary School Wednesday night, sitting on the floor and lining up near the door to learn about the Mandarin-immersion program starting in August. Many said the dual-language program, with its promise of Mandarin fluency by fifth grade, could bring their families closer.
None of her children's four grandparents speak English, Simone Wang said. And while the Mandarin program can't help communication with the East Indian pair who speaks Gujarati, it could bring her four-year-old son closer to the Chinese pair.
"Hopefully, the family connection is there," she said.
The crowd of between 250 and 300 curious parents seemed undaunted by the program's controversial past, including debate at 20 separate school board meetings in the past two years.
Yet only a fraction of parents at the 90-minute informational meeting will get "yes" letters, since a mere 40 students will be accepted for the first year of instruction.
The 20 kindergarten and 20 first-grade students will be housed in two newly constructed portables at Ohlone starting in August. They will learn mostly in Mandarin and -- administrators hope -- be fluent by fifth grade.
Children will be chosen via lottery and siblings of current Ohlone students will not be given preference to the language program, Principal Susan Charles said Wednesday.
Children will also learn in the "Ohlone way," a Montessori-like system where teachers work with students one-on-one throughout the day and strive to give kids wide berth to choose how they learn, she said.
Parents won't see students sitting in straight rows behind desks, she said.
The district wants to fill about one third of spots with fluent Mandarin speakers and two thirds with students whose predominant language is English, including those who only speak broken Mandarin, Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook said.
There will be a separate lottery for each of the two categories, she said.
Yet not all who attended the meeting left planning to vie for one of those spots.
Jason Zhang said he and his wife came to the United States from China in their 30s. They don't speak English at home and he's concerned the program, with 80 percent Mandarin instruction in the early years, might not teach perfect English to their son, he said.
"I want a guarantee he'd learn English," he said, adding he and his wife could only rely on schools for English instruction.
"English, we can't help. We came to this country in our 30s," he said.
The new program's ability to teach English well is untested, and he was unsure whether they would enter the lottery, he said.
Yet many left the meeting enthusiastic about the promise of sharing family heritage -- and giving their children opportunities they lacked growing up.
Her two daughters take Mandarin lessons on weekend mornings just as she did, Sherwin Wong said.
But she never attained fluency and doubts they could. Plus, the lessons cut into valuable free time that will only shrink as the kids enter later grades.
"They're not thrilled. They see it as extra schoolwork," she said. She hopes her youngest daughter will win a spot in the Mandarin-immersion program, she said.
And learning Mandarin could help with success later in life, according to Jennifer and Dan Orr, a bi-cultural couple.
"I think we're in a global country and economy. It's important to speak as many languages as you can," Mrs. Orr said.
Bilingualism is important, parent Anne Huynh agreed, and Mandarin is simply more interesting than European languages.
Despite Wednesday's overflowing crowd of eager parents, the language program was hotly debated prior to board approval last spring.
Critics questioned the program's cost, prompting school-district promises it could be cost-neutral with funding from state grants. Critics also labeled the limited enrollment inequitable, but defenders said several so-called "choice" programs that admit students via lottery already exist, such as Escondido Elementary School's Spanish-immersion program.
The school board initially vetoed the program but reversed its vote last spring when program proponents announced plans to open a charter school that could take money from public schools.
The program will be advised by Stanford professor and former school board member Amado Padilla and the California Foreign Language Project, a language-teaching organization run by the University of California, Cook said Wednesday.
The deadline to contact Ohlone and enter the lottery is Feb. 18. For more information's visit the school's Web site.