Lake Forest, Illinois offers a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences that can spring from Mandarin immersion.
Lake Forest is a small, affluent and attractive suburb about five miles north of Chicago. It’s a town with great schools. So great that every year Chicago families with young children nearing kindergarten age pack up and move there. “We’re really a white picket fence kind of place,” one resident told me.
The school district is small. It contains just five schools; three K – 4 schools, one middle school and one high school. Together they serve the communities of Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood.
Three years ago, in an effort to provide an innovative program that would better prepare students for work in a global economy, Lake Forest launched Mandarin immersion at Cherokee Elementary School. Cherokee was chosen because it is the most centrally-located of the district’s three K – 4 schools. The program began with two kindergarten classes and two first grade classes.
Cherokee historically had four kindergarten classes each year, capped at a maximum of 22 students in each. The Mandarin program was so popular among parents that by the 2013-2014 school year it had 150 students.
In kindergarten at Cherokee Elementary, 42 of the kindergarteners were in the program. That’s a whopping 70% of the school’s kinder class.
This is where the unintended consequence come in. Just as the Mandarin program was ramping up, the recession was doing the same. Suddenly families in Chicago who in past years could reliably be expected to sell their condos and move to the suburbs for a house, a big yard and great schools weren’t knocking on Lake Forest realtors doors. Overall district enrollment began to fall, especially in the lower grades and most precipitously in kindergarten.
Which is how, by 2013-2014, the English language kindergarten at Cherokee was just 14 kids in one class. Meanwhile Mandarin had two packed classes of 21 each. In fact Mandarin students by 2013-2014 made up 31% of the entire kindergarten student population district-wide.
Suddenly a school district that had always prided itself on neighborhood schools was faced with a dilemma. An extremely popular program had unintentionally turned the traditional English program into a minority within a school—and enrollment in the English program was continuing to decline.
Things got testy. Parents who chose the traditional English program felt their children were not getting the attention they deserved. A few vocal parents made comments about elitism, fairness and the involvement of the Chinese communist government. While these few parents did not represent the overall tone of the English program families, there was broad concern about the English program becoming a minority within the school.
All the while, the immersion program was drew some Chicagoland parents to move to Lake Forest.
Lake Forest offers one of four Mandarin immersion programs in the entire state of Illinois. The only other ones are the Intercultural Montessori Language school in Chicago, Campanelli Elementary in Schaumburg, 30 miles northwest of Chicago and Barrington School District ten miles farther out than Schaumburg.
District administrators began surveying families, trying to understand the underlying issues. But there was nothing they could do about the economy or the dwindling enrollment in the district as a whole—or the demand for Mandarin immersion among parents.
In order to stay on track for incoming kindergarten registration and staff for 2014-15, on February 27 the school board decided to remove the immersion option from the 2014-15 kindergarten program. The 150 students currently enrolled in the immersion program would continue their 50/50 language learning through fourth grade. The district would continue to study how to best meet the needs of every child with a second recommendation to the Board in May.
Lake Forest presents an interesting case. Some school districts, facing declining enrollment, have used Mandarin immersion and other types of magnet schools, to bring in families from out of district. That tends to work best in school choice areas such as Minnesota, where families have the right to send their children to any school in the state, no matter where they live.
That was the strategy of the Minnetonka, Minn. public schools, which launched a very highly regarded Mandarin and Spanish immersion program in its schools. They were successful in reversing declining enrollment, which for Minnetonka was caused by an aging population.
Illinois is not a school choice state and families can only enter the Lake Forest schools if they live there, so the Minnesota model isn’t an option.
More meetings are scheduled in the coming weeks. What the outcome will be is hard to predict.