Editorial: Reject Mandarin immersion, for now | January 24, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 24, 2007

Editorial: Reject Mandarin immersion, for now

School board members rightly leave door open to summer-session immersion or future consideration as part of a broad "world language" strategy

With a formal decision not due until next Tuesday night, four of the five school board members at the Jan. 9 school board meeting left no doubt about where they stand on implementing a pilot program in Mandarin immersion language instruction next fall. They won't.

Citing various specific reasons, they said it is too much too soon even for a pilot program at an existing "choice" school, Ohlone elementary, where families from throughout the district already apply to participate in an alternative-education program.

Few proposals have generated as much intensity as the "MI" proposal, prompting hundreds of postings on the Town Square forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com, plus many phone calls and personal lobbying with school board members. Few recent issues have been as thoroughly aired.

No one on the board questions the benefit of MI as a superior way to teach a difficult language. None question the importance of the Mandarin language, spoken by more than a billion people worldwide. But the range of concerns left little question that it will take a great deal of convincing before anyone shifts position, despite a continuing full-court press by MI supporters.

The strongest case for inaugurating a pilot MI program came in a recommendation by Superintendent Mary Frances Callan. In an inserted section of a favorable feasibility study, she detailed concerns raised, then added a dozen reasons why MI makes sense, focusing on Palo Alto being part of the "Pacific Rim" economic sphere and noting that more students in Palo Alto speak Mandarin as a native language (927) than speak Spanish (766). The district has had a Spanish immersion program since the early 1990s.

She coupled her recommendation with a proposal to renew a study of implementing a broader language program in elementary schools. But in the past such instruction has been deemed too expensive in a tight-budget period -- what has changed?

In a brilliant recommendation, Callan proposed housing MI at an expanded Ohlone School, which eliminated concerns about displacing children from neighborhood schools, even though that could change after the three-year trial program ends.

The recommendations were not enough to convince the board majority, although board Chair Camille Townsend added her unqualified support for the MI plan.

Board member Dana Tom reflected views of several others when he said he might support an MI program in the future but only as part of "a world-language strategy" that encompasses district-wide language outcomes desired at graduation. He said language instruction should not be an "all-or-nothing proposition" in which a relatively few students receive deep instruction while others get left out, and questions about what happens after a three-year residency at Ohlone school also need to be resolved. He also expressed concern about administrative "bandwidth" available in the district to set up and administer the program, even if donations and grants cover the costs.

Barb Mitchell praised Callan's pro-MI recommendation, but noted the district has not yet completed the nine criteria required for special new programs. With significant enrollment growth projected in the next five years, the district should not limit its options relating to space, she said.

Mandy Lowell said she is concerned about strategic goals but also wants a broader language program in place at elementary schools before opting for a new program. She criticized the negative, polarizing tone of some comments, public and private, but said most exchanges have been civil and constructive. She said the tone of some opponents almost made her want to support MI despite misgivings.

Gail Price supported sentiments expressed by others, but felt there needs first to be "a real discussion of a K-12 language strategy." There are areas where the district already is having trouble keeping up with many student, faculty and administrative demands, she noted, citing an earlier district report.

While the case for MI has been strong and well-made, we agree with the board majority that there are clear strategic-planning pre-requisites that need to be completed first -- including defining an affordable overall language plan for all grades and identifying long-term space for an MI program.