The public educational system is slow to change. Too slow. It is falling behind the pace of change in the global economy. There is a strategic need, both for economic growth and national security, to develop more Mandarin fluent students. More and more parents want their children to learn Mandarin. Some are will to pay private school tuition. Thus this Oregonian story about the first Mandarin immersion program in Washington County. Why cannot the public schools offer something similar. They know there is both need and demand.
The Oregonian story “Parents, teachers join forces to create Chinese-immersion academy: Private Beaverton school's program for kids stands alone in Washington County” (12/25/08, here) was written by Melissa Navas:
She places magnets on the board to quiz them, showing numbers out of order to trick the students who can only recite from one to 10 in Mandarin.
One student catches on. He tells her she forgot to call "yi" and "er" -- the 1 and 2.
Just months ago, many of these 3- and 4-year-olds didn't know any Chinese. They are among 30 students at Northwest Chinese Academy, a new full Chinese immersion private school for preschool- through fifth-grade students that opened in September. Annual tuition for the full-day program is $10,500.
Teachers at this downtown Beaverton school combine Chinese and American instruction techniques as they focus on educating the "whole child," meaning teaching academics and how to interact and respect others. The school aims to keep class sizes low, though it plans to expand.
Mandarin, China's main language, is increasingly important as China becomes a key player in the world economy. U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Farsi to engage governments, increase cultural understanding and boost economic relations.
At the academy, students spend most of their day speaking Mandarin, including for physical education classes and after-school activities such as an abacus club and Chinese dancing. The school hired one teacher for English instruction.
"We like to build excellent global citizens," teacher Yafei Liu said. "And to teach our children to open their minds."
Though school is running at a normal pace now, that wasn't the case this summer when the school's five teachers -- formerly teachers at The International School in Portland -- and a group of parents decided to form their own school.
The teachers say they had a different vision for teaching than The International School and decided to leave. Some of their students' parents followed the teachers and helped them open the school in about three months. The International School declined to comment on their departure.
"They said, 'We know how to teach. We don't know how to start a business,'" said Prem Arcot, a parent and president of the board of trustees.
Parents and teachers said the school's location is ideal because of a growing interest in immersion programs and lack of offerings in the area. No Washington County school districts offer full Chinese immersion programs. Also, companies and high-tech businesses in the county's backyard are reminders that language skills are important in global economies.
"It's obvious that Beaverton is a strong pull" for the school, Arcot said.
Students are placed in mixed-age classrooms based on language proficiency. For some subjects, such as math and science, students alternate classes depending on what they know.
Accountability is a big component of the school, leaders say. At the school's discretion, students will take Oregon standardized tests as one measure of performance. For Chinese proficiency, students will take language tests issued by the Chinese government.
The school does not currently have accreditation but plans to approach various organizations to obtain that, Arcot said. Aside from core subjects, the school incorporates Chinese culture into lessons. Students learn about poetry, customs and key historical Chinese figures.
Susan Choi said she likes that aspect of the school. She enrolled her daughter not only to learn a language, but also to maintain her heritage. It's a wish she has for her other children, too.
"We basically wanted it for them to understand who they are as a Chinese American," said Choi, who was born in Hong Kong. "For me, growing up, it was all about assimilation."
Daniel Mendyke, a parent and board member, sends his first-grade daughter to the school, adding that he regrets not putting his older son in an immersion program.
"I find it to be a tremendously useful skill to be bilingual, and I don't feel the public schools do enough to teach other languages," Mendyke said.
As much as parents say they like the program, students sing praises, too.
"It's really fun to work with the teachers," said Anisha Arcot, 8. "They are really nice and they do the right thing. All the students really like our teachers. I get to know the littlest kids and the oldest kids. I really like to be friends with everyone, not just my class."
Quinn Conkey, 6, said one of his favorite songs goes "the cat eats the fish, the dog eats the meat, and the horse and the luo eat the grass."
He forgets what luo ("mule") means. "I don't know what it is in English, but I know it in Chinese," he says.
Not even a full year into the program, the board of trustees is searching for a larger building in the Beaverton area for next year, Arcot said. While they'd like to expand the program, they'd prefer to keep the ratio to a maximum of one teacher for every 10 students, he added.
If newcomers attend the school, Mendyke said, they'll notice the pride that parents, the teachers and especially students place in it.
"If you ask some of them, they'll say, 'That's the school my father built for me.' You have a sense of pride but also of having accomplished something significant for my child."
-- Melissa Navas; firstname.lastname@example.org
Chinese programs elsewhere
The metro area offers a limited number of Chinese immersion programs in public and private schools. Two such programs:
Portland Public Schools: The district offers a K-5 immersion program at Woodstock Elementary School, where students spend half their day in English instruction and the other half in Mandarin. Studies continue at Hosford Middle School with students taking two Chinese classes a day. Eighth-graders take part in a two-week residency in China. At Cleveland High School, students take one language and content course. "Chinese immersion -- it's like the hottest thing in public education right now," said Kojo Hakam, curriculum specialist for the district's Chinese Flagship Program.
Web site: http://tinyurl.com/4w5mze
The International School: The pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade Portland private school offers full immersion programs in Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, except for art, music and physical education which are taught in English. Students in grades one to five also take English language arts daily. Fifth-graders in the Chinese track take a trip to a sister school in China.
Web site: www.intlschool.org