Palo Alto school board members agreed Tuesday night that expanding an elementary school Mandarin immersion program to Jordan Middle School filling a hole in the district in Mandarin instruction between elementary and high schools -- is a common-sense decision that they support.
Staff brought a proposal to the board to begin a pilot expansion of Ohlone Elementary School's popular Mandarin immersion program at Jordan this fall. The Ohlone program began in the fall of 2008 with 40 students and steadily grew to its targeted size of 124 by the 2012-2013 school year.
"We have all these kids, our warm bodies, in elementary school," said board vice president Heidi Emberling. "A bridge is needed."
Modeled after Jordan's Spanish-immersion program, the pilot Mandarin program would be offered for one hour, four days a week, to students who graduated from the Ohlone program. The pilot is proposed for Jordan rather than Terman or JLS middle schools because that period of instruction was already built into the school's master schedule for the Spanish program, staff said.
If approved, the program would begin with one section for sixth-graders this fall, and increase over the next two years (one section for sixth- and seventh-graders in the 2016-17 year and one section at all three grade levels in the 2017-18 year).
Currently, students who enroll in Ohlone's choice program each year have no in-school options for Mandarin instruction in middle school. (Both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools offer several levels of the language.) Parents of current Ohlone students told the board Tuesday the impact that a three-year gap in instruction could have on their children.
"I think a bridge to high school is definitely needed to keep this education and language proficiency and in the case of my kids, I think the enhanced confidence they've gotten from tackling a challenging experience like this -- to keep those things from being wasted," said James Porter, the father of a second- and fourth-grader in the Ohlone program. "A three-year gap is really significant at the sixth-grade level, especially given the social and academic demands that come up in middle school."
Parent and Mandarin-immersion advocate Grace Mah told the board that a study of the Ohlone program, conducted by Amado Padilla of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, found that fifth-graders graduating from the program who took a language proficiency test scored at approximately the same level as third- and fourth-grade level Mandarin students at Gunn and Paly.
"The importance of this is that if (Mandarin immersion) students exit Ohlone and then have no Mandarin instruction until high school, they will likely regress ... and the full potential of the (Mandarin immersion) program is not achieved," Mah said.
Students who graduate from the Ohlone program would be given first priority for the Jordan course, staff said. If there's room, they could open it up to students who pass a qualifying test.
Board member Ken Dauber acknowledged that there is a community concern around expanding a choice program that operates on a lottery basis, serving a select rather than broad population of students.
"I think it would be desirable if we were receiving this proposal at the same time that we were also considering a proposal for an extension of language instruction into elementary grades as well because I think part of the concern in the community around the first Mandarin immersion program and to some extent, this proposal, is a sense that we should be providing the good things about foreign-language instruction more broadly," Dauber said. "I think that's true and I hope that we will get to that point, but it's also the case that the timing of this is such that this is kind of a targeted opportunity, so I think we should seize that."
The district will likely be looking at further foreign-language programming after this year, when an outside research firm finishes an evaluation of the district's world language offerings, including the current Mandarin and Spanish programs.
The board will vote on the proposal at its next meeting on Feb. 24. If approved, staff will move forward with writing the course curriculum, ordering textbooks, developing a qualifying test for students who move into the district and hiring a teacher. Staff plans to return to the board on June 23 to report on the progress -- and cost -- of these efforts.
Jordan Principal Greg Barnes said if approved, the school will hold an information night for parents interested in the pilot program in early March.