The world's most widely spoken language, Mandarin Chinese, increasingly is being spoken by the children of Palo Alto.
Driven by a growing Chinese population that wants its children to know their "heritage" tongue -- as well as by Caucasian and other parents who view Mandarin as a key to the global economy -- more than 2,000 Palo Alto schoolchildren are actively learning the language this fall.
On weekends, as many as 1,500 students fill classrooms at Gunn High School and Jordan and JLS middle schools for all forms of Mandarin instruction.
After school, hundreds of kids play, recite and sing in Mandarin at Fairmeadow Elementary School, the private Stratford School and Cubberley Community Center.
And Monday through Friday, more than 200 children spend their days "immersed" in Mandarin in local public and private schools, one of which just opened in August.
Both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools also offer Mandarin among their "world language" electives.
"It's reached a critical mass. There's a lot of interest and excitement," said Sara Armstrong, whose 6-year-old son Isaac is in Ohlone Elementary School's Mandarin Immersion program.
Jean Paul Ho, a fluent Mandarin speaker and private equity investor, launched the private bilingual Wellspring Academy in Palo Alto this fall, which educates children in grades K-8. The school hired veteran Walter Hays Elementary School second-grade teacher Cathy Dilts as part of his program.
Beginning with a handful of students, Wellspring aims to produce bilingual, multicultural graduates prepared to participate in the global economy.
"We want to teach not just the languages, but the cultural and global leaderships aspects of education," Ho said.
The rise of Mandarin instruction in Palo Alto reflects its growth both statewide and nationally. Mandarin is considered a "critical need language" by the U.S. National Security Agency. Some programs around the nation -- including one at Palo Alto High School last summer -- are financed by the Defense Department's National Security Language Initiative.
Across the U.S., the number of students studying the language grew from 16,091 in 2003 to 26,020 in 2007, according to the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools.
Locally, Mandarin instruction is available in all shapes and styles, from small, home-based tutoring groups to the 1,000-plus students who fill Gunn classrooms on Sunday afternoons.
The majority of Palo Alto's Mandarin students are "heritage" children with some prior familiarity with the language, whose parents want them to become literate.
But growing numbers of students have no previous family or cultural ties to Mandarin.
There are Mandarin programs catering to each group -- and some that try to teach both in the same classrooms. The teaching methods and atmosphere of the programs are as varied as the founders themselves.
Launched in 1979 as a French-American school, International School of the Peninsula (ISTP) pioneered all-day Mandarin instruction in Palo Alto in 1996.
From a kindergarten class of five children that year, ISTP has grown to a full K-8 Mandarin program with 175 students, mirroring its well-established sister program in French.
Children -- about 25 percent heritage Mandarin speakers, the others native English-speakers -- sit on carpets in a colorful classroom, reciting and playing games.
ISTP students spend much of their day in the target language but learn math and science in English.
"We want our students to leave ISTP with at least two or three languages," Head of School Philippe Dietz said. French is introduced as a third language to students on the Mandarin side at grade 3, and the French students get Mandarin for their third language.
"Knowing a language is a very big element of the culture," Dietz said. "The mission of our school is globalization, responsible bilingualism, academic rigor."
Looking to add another language to the school in the mid-1990s, ISTP considered Spanish, Italian and Japanese before settling on Mandarin, not an obvious choice at the time.
"A core reason was that Chinese and European culture have many differences but also many things in common. One thing is the rigor of education. Then we felt that if we talk about globalization, it was very important to bring an understanding of a different world.
"It was a real challenge at the time, something so new. It took some time to get the school onto the map."
Retaining students from year to year is critical for any bilingual school. ISTP's first kindergarten class in 1996 dwindled after fourth grade, never making it to fifth, Dietz said, but today the program boasts an 85 to 90 percent retention rate.
Parents love the all-day immersion experience for their children because it makes it possible for them to pick up a new language with ease, they say.
When people comment to her that learning Mandarin must be hard for her son, Isaac, Armstrong often chimes in: "'No, it's not hard.' He doesn't perceive it as hard," she said.
Though private-language schools have been exploring Mandarin for years, the public school system has only just started. The Ohlone Mandarin Immersion program has settled comfortably into its second year this fall following a bitter and well-publicized controversy over whether it should be started at all.
"The first year, we just embraced it," said Ohlone Principal Bill Overton, who was an Ohlone teacher at the time.
"It wasn't our job to decide where it was going to go or anything like that. We took it on and made the best of it."
An Ohlone Mandarin Immersion classroom looks much like any Palo Alto elementary classroom, except that most of the writing on the walls is in Chinese characters.
In Room 26, a second-grade classroom, a full-sized clown hangs on the door, welcoming visitors in both English and Mandarin.
Inside, mornings are taught in Mandarin, while afternoon provides time for reading and book write-ups in English, some students sitting at desks and others in a small reading group with the teacher on the floor.
Mindful that "guest" programs at a school have a poor chance if they are isolated, school leaders took pains to welcome and integrate Mandarin students and their families into the "Ohlone way." That includes work on the school farm, a "child-centered" philosophy of education and mixed-grade classes.
The popular program, which is filled by lottery, aims for one-third native Mandarin speakers and two-thirds non-Mandarin speakers.
Last year there were two K/1 classes. This year there are two K/1 classes and a second-grade class. Now serving 66 children, the Mandarin Immersion program, which is still considered a "pilot" program, is due to be evaluated by the school board in 2010.
Grants provide funding for materials to carry the program through fifth grade.
"There's a very large demand for this program," Overton said. "It's a thriving program.
"You go into some of these classrooms and the teacher is speaking only Mandarin and some of the kids have only been in school one or two months, and they're following directions."
The newest entrant into Palo Alto's Mandarin immersion field is the tiny Wellspring Academy, launched this fall by Los Altos Hills investor Ho, the major backer of the school. He has hired professional teachers and administrators to run day-to-day operations.
A loquacious Mandarin speaker with a longtime interest in education and the perspective of a global investor, Ho's own children attended ISTP's Mandarin program, Yew Chung International School of Mountain View and Harker School of San Jose.
His educational philosophy springs from his experience in global business.
"What I see time and time again when we build these companies is that people can't communicate with each other," Ho said. "It's not just language, but cultural perspective.
"Even the concepts of leadership and what leaders should be doing is different.
"The reason I started Wellspring is I didn't see any schools doing what we're trying to do, teaching not just the language but the cultural and global leadership aspects of education."
Wellspring rents space in the Unitarian Church on Charleston Road.
The six kindergarten- and first-grade students spend half their time in Mandarin and half in English. Three or four additional students come for after-school time.
"We're thinking about what a child needs to be in the 21st century to be truly involved, to be a leader and be productive in global organizations. What kind of skills do we need to give them in language, cultural understanding and collaboration?
"If we have that goal in mind, it's a very different task for the teachers."
As Mandarin continues to surge in popularity, Palo Alto has seen an increasing number of after-school programs that teach Mandarin.†
These programs used to primarily target children from Mandarin-speaking families, but in recent years some have shifted to cater to children whose families don't speak Mandarin at all.
Acme Education Group and Champion Youth Enrichment School are two programs that offer after-school day care with Mandarin classes.
Emerson School, a private school located along West Bayshore Road, began offering an after-school Mandarin immersion program in September to students from first- to eighth-grade.
Chuck Bernstein, president of the Early Learning Institute, which operates Emerson School and three HeadsUp! child centers, set up Emerson's after-school program and a separate preschool Mandarin immersion program at the HeadsUp! Child Development Center at the same campus as Emerson.
"I realized we could do a lot better in helping kids with their language skills," Bernstein said. Two years ago, only 25,000 people in the United States were learning Mandarin, a stark contrast with China, where more than 200 million people were learning English, he said.
Emerson began offering Mandarin classes four years ago but Bernstein realized students would not be fluent without more time with the language.
The after-school program runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and currently has 10 students.
"It's not even clear to me that three hours after school is enough for our kids to be literate," Bernstein said. He is also thinking about organizing exchange programs to China.
All Emerson students are eligible for the after-school program, which also accepts students from other schools.
Bernstein said Chinese provides students with a different mental framework. Students have to write characters that were once drawings and listen carefully to the four tones present in Mandarin, he said.
"There are interesting things in the Chinese language that help us think about the world differently," Bernstein said. "Mandarin only has a single tense, so we're always in the present."
In 2002, Acme principals Daphne and Janet Chao moved their institution to Cubberley Community Center from Mountain View after noting a lack of similar programs here.
"I chose this area because I thought it had more potential at that time, and I made the right decision," Daphne said.
A Taiwan native, Daphne earned her master's degree in education from the University of Northern Iowa before moving to teach Mandarin in Cupertino. She bought Acme from its previous owner in 1998 and decided to retain the name.
Ninety percent of the school's 150 students are heritage speakers, but the bilingual teachers give students the same material and employ the same teaching methods for all.
"We put children in a Chinese-speaking environment," Daphne said. "If they get lost, the teachers use a little bit of English to help them. We don't have a specific class for those who don't speak Chinese at home."
The children, from kindergarten to sixth-grade, learn Mandarin for 45 minutes every weekday afternoon and are also tutored in English and math.
Janet recalled an Indian girl in third-grade who has studied at Acme since kindergarten. She can fully understand Mandarin, but still employs more English when responding to her teachers. Even with daily instruction, children from non-heritage families still face significant challenges in becoming fluent in Mandarin.
Parents find the after-school program valuable.
"Our kids did not speak Mandarin at all, but after one month here they can," said Irene Wu, a Chinese-American parent who sent her sons to Acme because she and her husband were not fluent in Mandarin themselves. She liked the continuity that a daily program such as Acme offers.
"They are learning so much here," Wu said. "They are not fully conversant, but they now are familiar with tones and know basic words."
Mandarin education in Palo Alto was first made available more than 45 years ago through weekend Chinese schools.
The Palo Alto Chinese School was founded in 1963 and is the oldest Chinese School in the San Francisco Bay Area.
More recently, Stanford Chinese School was formed in 1994, while Hwa Shin Bilingual Chinese School was created in 1995.
Each of these programs caters to different needs.
Hwa Shin teaches Mandarin as a second language to non-Chinese speaking students, while Palo Alto Chinese School and Stanford Chinese School cater almost entirely to "heritage" children.
Even so, the demand by non-Mandarin-speaking parents is changing the schools.
The Palo Alto Chinese School added three classes teaching Mandarin as a second language three years ago due to burgeoning demand, Principal Georgia Lu said.
Lu said her school usually refers non-heritage students to Hwa Shin, but inquiries increased to an extent that her school diverted resources to cater to those students.
They currently have 43 students learning Mandarin as a second language.
"The demand for Chinese as a second language is growing every year," Lu said. "It's growing because of globalization and the economy. If you want to go to China to do business you have to speak Chinese."
Palo Alto Chinese School holds classes every Friday at JLS Middle School from 7 to 9 p.m. for students aged 5 to 18.
The school is one of few institutions in the area that teaches Mandarin in "traditional script" as opposed to the increasingly popular "simplified script" used throughout China. Chinese characters in traditional script are more complex and often require more strokes to write.
Lu said her school would continue teaching traditional script because it purchases textbooks from Taiwan, which uses traditional script.
Words also gain extra meaning when taught in their original, traditional form, Lu said. She said the school teaches students to transition from traditional to simplified script at higher grades.
Hwa Shin principals and Taiwanese natives Thomas and Phyllis Liu founded their school because their own children dropped out of heritage Chinese schools here.
"They didn't like the traditional teaching methods. Kids were told, 'You didn't do your homework, go stand outside,'" Thomas said. "So we decided to teach Chinese as a second language using American teaching methodologies."
Students play games like Bingo (with Mandarin characters instead of alphabets), and teachers constantly ask questions to stimulate their thinking, Thomas said. Like Palo Alto Chinese School, Hwa Shin teaches both traditional and simplified script.
"A lot of schools just teach, teach and teach, but we make sure we're interacting with kids and their families," Thomas said. "It's not just whiteboard teaching."
Only 5 to 10 percent of their students come from heritage backgrounds, Thomas said. Their student population is highly varied and includes Caucasian, Indian, Korean and Japanese children.
Hwa Shin conducts classes for more than 80 students every Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. at Jordan Middle School. The school also offers after-school classes at Fairmeadow Elementary School from 1:45 to 3:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and at Laurel Elementary School in Menlo Park from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.
"These extra sessions would offer students more opportunities to learn and speak Mandarin," Thomas said.