Guest Opinion: If the world is flat, are our children prepared? | January 17, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 17, 2007

Guest Opinion: If the world is flat, are our children prepared?

by Grace Mah and Nico Janik

It all started just over five years ago: A small idea grew to a thoroughly-researched PAUSD feasibility study and the superintendent's recommendation last week to start a Mandarin Chinese Immersion Program (MCIP) pilot at Ohlone Elementary School for Fall 2007.

To take three years to build four classes for just under $44,000, and take the first steps towards offering FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) in all Palo Alto elementary schools is phenomenal.

But this is really a rekindling of ideas from 1994, when two Palo Alto task forces investigated different methods for delivering foreign-language instruction. After studying immersion and FLES teaching models and established programs across the nation, PAUSD was driven to start a number of elementary foreign language pilot programs. Spanish immersion (SI) was piloted in 1995. Two FLES programs were piloted at two other elementary schools. After two years of FLES, the pilots were discontinued due to lack of funding. After five years of evaluations, SI at Escondido moved from pilot to on-going status.

Time warp to 2002. With the successful example of SI, along with the establishment of Mandarin immersion (MI) in the Cupertino school district, we were prompted to ask the question, "Why not MI in Palo Alto?"

Following the school district's alternative program policy, PACE (Palo Alto Chinese Education, a grassroots parents group) approached the board and administration with its proposal. The staff and board responded by developing alternative-program guidelines, reaffirming the district's commitment to alternative programs and careful planning.

During the 2003 budget cuts, the community and board maintained interest in MI — just "not now."

Candidate forums came and went, with MI supported by many school board hopefuls. Community interest has been continuous, broad and deep. But "not now."

Last year, the board at last approved a feasibility study on MI, based on timely funding opportunities, our increasing enrollment growth, and the fulfillment of the threshold analysis by PACE.

The Result: research of pro-and-con issues, a creative site recommendation (which does not displace neighborhood children) and a small pilot initiation of four classes for three years.

What a bargain! A world language program for elementary schools carefully and slowly being started with less than $44,000 of seed money. These start-up funds may come from grants or parent and community donations, but will not come from school district or site funds.

School districts across the country incorporate FLES and immersion programs into successful, cost-effective, and meaningful world language. PAUSD can do it, but will it be "not now"?

We contend that the world is flat, how long will we wait for our Palo Alto children to catch up?

Despite intense discussion in the Town Square and other community forums, there is much misinformation around about MI — almost a Misinformation Immersion. Here are the top four questions about MI:

1) Can PAUSD afford it?

Yes, actually, it will be free. It will cost PAUSD taxpayers nothing, other than minimal administrative time. Creation of MCIP will not increase the number of children in the district. These children will be in a classroom in Palo Alto with or without MCIP. Each MCIP classroom will require a one-time start-up cost of $10,500 for Mandarin textbooks, materials, and a classroom library.

2) Should we do some FLES before we launch MCIP?

The current focus on MI has instigated a significant community interest in FLES. In fact, Superintendent Mary Frances Callan recommends to "develop an implementation plan for a FLES program." She also says MCIP should move forward.

MCIP doesn't interfere with FLES; MCIP would build resources that will contribute to FLES. The foresight of the Ohlone site, which "has an interest in finding ways to share immersion program curriculum knowledge to integrate some FLES program structures within the school," is visionary.

3) Are the Ohlone Way and MI teaching methods compatible?

Yes. Dr. Callan's recommendation to pilot MCIP for 3 years at Ohlone, requires adherence to the Ohlone Way. MCIP will become part of the Ohlone family, and follow the Ohlone "Connections" philosophy. Immersion is a very flexible teaching methodology. In immersion education, the language is the medium by which the content is delivered. The content delivery can be in any instructional philosophy. MI could as easily be implemented at Hoover or Young 5s, as well as any neighborhood school.

4) What about a charter school or other private after-school and weekend programs?

Charter schools have the purpose of allowing a community of parents, teachers, and administrators to create a school to fulfill needs that are lacking in a school district. Being a basic-aid district, PAUSD would face significant financial losses if a charter school were started. Charter schools exist in Los Altos, East Palo Alto, San Jose and San Carlos. The board should weigh the impact of a charter school within its district and consider the ramifications of signaling the MI community towards a charter school.

After-school and weekend programs are no substitute for immersion. Immersion is not just an "extra dose" of language lessons. Those who will benefit the most from MI are kids who have no access to Mandarin speakers and few resources to support private immersion schools or tutors. For this group, MCIP is an amazing opportunity, and fluency in Mandarin would not be achievable without it.

We have a great world-class school district. We can do more to keep it that way.

Nico Janik and Grace Mah are former engineers who are now "full-time moms." They can be e-mailed at and