Almanac

Schools - April 30, 2014

Menlo school board says time isn't right to add Mandarin immersion

by Barbara Wood

A standing-room-only crowd of parents and supporters of a Mandarin-immersion program for the Menlo Park City School District next fall failed to get the support of the district's school board at its meeting April 23.

Board members heard a presentation by Carol Cunningham, a district resident who has organized backers of a program in which students would have at least half their classes in Mandarin, similar to the district's existing two Spanish-immersion programs. Ms. Cunningham said she represents 120 families and 160 students. They asked to have one Mandarin kindergarten class begin next fall.

Only one parent, Todd Brahana, spoke against the program, asking that it be put off until problems with hiring and teacher support for the existing Spanish-immersion programs can be worked out.

"Adding Mandarin before the Spanish is stable is going to put the entire program at risk," he said.

Board members did not vote on a Mandarin-immersion program, but clearly do not support starting one this fall.

"I would like nothing better than to say go," said board member Terry Thygesen. "But I know it's simply not something that the district can do at this point in time."

Ms. Cunningham said research has found multiple benefits of a bilingual education, including preparing "our children to thrive in the complex global economy." Research also shows "bilingualism is very good for the brain," she said.

Immersion programs are better than enrichment programs, she said, because "language is the tool, not the subject." Students in immersion programs develop fluency, literacy, multi-cultural competence and increased academic achievement, according to her research.

But Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said the district needs to "step back and take a really good look at what we want to do with foreign languages," including a close look at the existing Spanish-immersion programs, before launching a new one.

The district also has a number of projects underway right now, including moving to the Common Core curriculum and opening a new school. "When it comes to time and energy and money, you only have so much," he said. "One of the things I want to do really well is the things we've already committed to."

Ms. Thygesen and other board members said one problem they have with a new immersion program, as well as with the existing Spanish program, is that it's not available to all students who want it.

"We have an obligation to move toward equity of access for all students," said Ms. Thygesen. A lottery, she said, is not equitable. Her goal, she said, is "if it's a choice program, it's a choice that's available to all students."

That argument did not appease parents. "It's more important to at least provide for some than provide for none," said Jennifer Yeh, a district resident with three young children. "There's no way we can provide equal access to all."

Sharon Fendrich, whose daughter is in the Spanish-immersion program at Laurel School, argued that inequality is built into the public schools.

"Every child in our district has access to a better education than children in thousands of surrounding districts," she said. "Hundreds of families in our district have made it obvious that they want a Mandarin-immersion program."

One reason for the sense of urgency by some backers of the program is that immersion programs usually start in kindergarten and older children can't join later. But board members said they need to do more work before starting a new program, including completing a project to identify the core principles of the district.

"We may not be able to put another language on the table any time soon," said board member Maria Hilton.

After the meeting, Ms. Cunningham said she was "very disappointed by the board's response."  Ms. Cunningham said that the fact that the district had so many other projects underway seems to be "the showstopper."

"The compelling merits of a Mandarin immersion program were not debated at the meeting, and other challenges are solvable," she said.

"Despite the outcome of last week's meeting, we are optimistic that we will be able to collaborate with the district to find a win-win solution in the near future," Ms. Cunningham said.

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