Immersed in debate | January 24, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 24, 2007

Immersed in debate

Proposal to add Mandarin-language immersion program to Palo Alto school district pits 'neighborhood schools' model against 'choice' programs

by Alexandria Rocha

One night last spring, the fluorescent lights in the Palo Alto school district board room glowed well passed midnight. More than a dozen parents shifted tiredly in their seats while the five-member board debated what would later become one of the most divisive proposals to hit the district in a while: Mandarin immersion.

At 1:30 a.m., the board voted 3-1 to use a private donation to study implementing a controversial Mandarin-language immersion program. Board member Gail Price voted against the study and member Mandy Lowell abstained.

The board's decision turned out to be kindling for two aggressive and organized campaigns in the community. A fiery debate involving mud slinging and hours of passionate testimony -- some with racial undertones -- has since ensued, leaving the board caught in the middle.

"I feel like the community is really suffering. There's a lot of vitriol. There have been a lot of personal attacks," parent Rosemary Gill said at a December board meeting.

Some parents, however, thought they cleared a major hurdle that spring night. A group called Palo Altans for Chinese Education (PACE), founded in 2002 by parent Grace Mah, has long been pushing for Mandarin immersion, a specialized program that would serve about 200 children at full capacity. The group had been turned down once before because of the district's shaky financial situation.

This time, vocal opposition to the program formed, running on a platform that Mandarin immersion would squeeze children out of their neighborhood schools.

Nine months after the board's early morning vote, it appears the opposition has won. Four of five board members said at a Jan. 9 meeting they will not support a Mandarin-immersion program for reasons ranging from curriculum disparity to financial constraints.

"Not all good ideas can be adopted," Lowell said.

An official vote will come Jan. 30.

The now-controversial feasibility study, conducted by three district staff members -- Marilyn Cook, assistant superintendent; Becky Cohn-Vargas, director of elementary education; and Norman Masuda, world languages supervisor at Palo Alto High School -- reported that a Mandarin-immersion program was, in fact, feasible to implement this fall.

It said such a program would be in line with the district's goal to offer cutting-edge educational programs and would also be cost neutral. The only problem was finding a school to host the program.

Superintendent Mary Frances Callan offered a solution: Start two grades of Mandarin immersion at Ohlone Elementary School, which has the space, this fall, monitor the program for three years and then decide where to locate it permanently. She also recommended starting a summer course in Mandarin for middle schoolers this year and developing a plan to bring foreign language to all elementary students.

Gunn and Palo Alto high schools began pilot courses in beginning Mandarin this school year. Teachers Norman Masuda, at Paly, and Sarah Du, at Gunn, hope the schools will add more advanced classes in the coming years so students can eventually take the new Advanced Placement test in Mandarin, which the College Board is administering for the first time this spring.

Members of PACE, who paid for the study with a $66,000 donation, were ecstatic. Opponents were not.

Parents on both sides flooded the board meeting at which the study was discussed earlier this month. Supporters united themselves by wearing red, the lucky Chinese color. Opponents distinguished themselves by wearing green.

Public testimony took hours.

Proponents of the program carried toddlers to the podium. They spoke about blond, blue-eyed children speaking perfect Chinese and how easy it is for children to pick up languages.

"Mandarin immersion has inertia right now," said parent David Yen. The district "has an opportunity to capture the energy."

Opponents said the program would displace children from their neighborhood schools and asked the board why it was considering a new specialized program when the district had so many other priorities, such as technology, support for students' social-emotional health and curriculum issues in math.

Some even said Mandarin immersion would attract mostly Chinese families.

"It's not the job of the Palo Alto district to teach my child my own language," mother Anja Finseth said at an earlier meeting at which the program was discussed.

Board members then surprised most in the audience with statements that did not support Callan's recommendation to move the program forward. They favored developing a district-wide foreign language strategy instead.

"Mandarin immersion is a much lower priority: The depth is quite high, but the breadth of the (program's) impact is quite low," board Vice President Dana Tom said. "Our staff is stretched very thinly, and I think we have many other priorities than Mandarin immersion.

"We talk about stressed-out students, (but) I think we have a stressed-out school district," he said.

Board President Camille Townsend was the sole supporter of the program.

"Any opportunity we put off another day to give our students the choice of (this) lottery-based program is a mistake," she said.

Mandarin immersion would be the district's second language-immersion program. Spanish immersion, housed at Escondido Elementary School, is in its 11th successful year.

A provision of the Spanish program when it was adopted in 1995 was that it could not cost more than a regular classroom, about $10,000. The same would be true this time around. Mah said the only cost would be Mandarin-language materials, which program parents would purchase. Spanish immersion started with $2,600 worth of library books, according to the PACE Web site. Teachers would not be paid more for being bilingual, Mah said.

Immersion classes carry the same curricula as the other grades but are taught primarily in the foreign language, with a portion of each school day dedicated to English-language instruction. The idea is for students to be fluent in both languages by the time they reach middle school.

"The feasibility study showed that immersion is the most efficient way and the cheapest way to teach a language," said Nico Janik, who has two sons and is expecting a third soon.

Raising bilingual children is a hot topic overall in the Palo Alto community. Blossom Birth, which provides resources for families, recently held a discussion about bringing up bilingual babies at its South California Avenue headquarters. It attracted about two dozen parents.

Palo Alto mom Theres Gruter, who holds a doctorate in linguistics and specializes in bilingualism, told parents they need to be clear on their intentions for wanting their children to be bilingual.

"Raising a bilingual child takes some engineering and networking of your connections. Try to think about how you're going to do it in the long term," Gruter said. "Bilingualism is not a steady state. It develops over the course of a lifetime. There's no guarantee your child will stay bilingual forever."

Chinese-language programs, especially those in Mandarin, seem to be the most popular with today's parents who want to raise a bilingual child. Schools across the country are implementing programs to help students compete in a global economy where job outsourcing is all too common.

The Chinese and American governments are even backing the movement. In 2005, three U.S. senators introduced a bill to spend $1.3 billion over five years on Chinese-language programs and cultural exchanges to improve ties between the U.S. and China. For the first time this year, advanced-placement Chinese classes will be offered in high schools throughout the country, and Beijing paid half of the $1.35 million it took to develop the curricula.

For Janik, a district Mandarin program would mean her 5-year-old son, Stosh, could remain fluent in the language.

When Stosh was 6 months old and Janik returned to work part-time, she and her husband hired a babysitter who could speak Mandarin to their son.

"As he got older, it was effortless to learn Mandarin," Janik said. "I didn't want him to lose that."

While searching for ways to help Stosh retain the language, Janik stumbled across PACE. Since Stosh will start kindergarten this fall, enrolling him in a Mandarin-immersion program seemed like the perfect option.

Janik has since become Mah's right hand.

"I still have my fingers crossed that there will be a Mandarin immersion program," Janik said.

About 20 core people are behind the campaign for the program and hundreds of others who support it, Mah said. There are 66 children who will enter kindergarten in the next three years whose parents have expressed interest in the program, Janik said.

If the program is voted down, Janik and Mah will continue advocating for Mandarin immersion within the context of a district-wide language strategy.

They are bewildered by the opposition's intense dislike of Mandarin immersion.

"If you're working toward something, I can understand being passionate in that respect," Janik said. "To intensely oppose something that doesn't directly affect you, I don't understand."

Mah said she has been called arrogant, condescending and noisy.

Palo Alto parent Lisa Steinback has been following PACE's efforts and the district's dilemma with Mandarin immersion since 2004. She opposed the program from the beginning, saying it wasn't logical to offer foreign language to a small number of children while the rest of the district's elementary students went without.

Already an active member of the PTA, she started attending board meetings last spring and chronicling the discussions of Mandarin immersion. She would then send out informational e-mails to those in her personal address book.

"I felt the proponents were very well-stated and very professional in proposing their ideas," said Steinback, who has two children in the schools. "I felt the rest of the community didn't really know what was going on."

The e-mail chains grew longer and reached more people throughout the months. A petition was started against the program. It now includes more than 1,000 signatures, said Faith Brigel, who has two sons in district schools.

It didn't take long for Steinback to band together with Brigel, Jamie Maltz and Pauline Navarro to form an organized opposition to Mandarin immersion.

"When I heard and realized the Board of Education was really considering this, I couldn't understand how they were considering Mandarin immersion when there are so many other issues," said Maltz, who grew up in Palo Alto and now has three children in district schools.

Just like supporters, the opponents delved into the inner workings of language-immersion programs, district finances and staff resources.

Then they struck a nerve: neighborhood schools.

Where would a second immersion program go? It would have to be placed at a neighborhood school, and as a result, force out children who live across the street and around the corner. The idea of children not being able to attend their neighborhood school attracted dozens of parents to the opposing campaign.

"This is about fairness," said Navarro, a mother of three district students.

But why such an outcry for Mandarin immersion when the district already operates a successful Spanish program that is cost neutral?

"Mandarin is a different language than Spanish. It's three to four times more difficult to learn," Maltz said. "Spanish immersion came to us in a different environment. The school was under enrolled. Choice programs help increase enrollment, and for a lot of districts that's good because enrollment comes with funding.

"That's not the case in Palo Alto Unified."

The opponents say they have been misunderstood. They don't oppose language-immersion programs; they just oppose adding a second to the Palo Alto district.

If the school board votes Mandarin immersion down, as it has indicated it will, it plans to look into developing a Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) program.

The feasibility study acknowledges that the "differences between FLES programs and immersion programs are considerable regarding both impact and cost."

FLES programs, which reach elementary students across a district, are considered more costly than immersion and do not aim to make children bilingual in the foreign languages.

A FLES program could be modeled after the district's elementary music and physical education programs. A team of traveling teachers visit the elementary classrooms for a set number of hours a week to administer music or physical education instruction.

Mah and Janik, however, have said the district can have both FLES and a Mandarin-immersion program.

"They don't really have to be connected," Janik said.

The two pointed out that districts across the country, which Palo Alto Unified compares to, operate both types of language-instruction models.

Opponents of Mandarin immersion are not convinced FLES is the way to go either.

"Would I trade foreign language for math, science, reading, physical education, music, art? Personally, I wouldn't want the district to put (language) above those," Maltz said.

The school board will vote on Mandarin immersion its meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 in the school district's board room, 25 Churchill Ave. To view the district's materials on Mandarin immersion, including the feasibility study, visit, and click on the link "school board information."

Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at


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