Everything you always wanted to know about
in the San Francisco Public Schools
but didn’t know who to ask.
A parent-created list of Frequently Asked Questions
Welcome! 欢迎 你！
This FAQ booklet was created by the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, which supports students, families, teachers and administrators in the San Francisco Unified School District’s Mandarin immersion programs.
Sources include staff and parents at Starr King and José Ortega Elementary schools, Parents for Public Schools, the Center for Applied Linguistics and the Multilingual Programs Dept. at the San Francisco Unified School District.
This FAQ was written by Beth Weise, a parent with two children in Mandarin Immersion at Starr King. It includes input from more than a dozen parents with children in Mandarin immersion, both English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking. This document is a work-in-progress and does not represent official San Francisco Public School District policy. All errors are mine alone. It is meant as an aid to parents considering Mandarin Immersion programs and for parents whose children are currently enrolled in those programs. If you have thoughts, comments or questions, please contact me at email@example.com
About those characters at the top: they say jia you! which literally means “Give it the gas!” but which is used in Mandarin to mean “Go for it!” or “Way to go!” As your child embarks on a life-long relationship with Chinese and English, let us be the first to say to you and your family: 加油!
Q: Why have your child learn Mandarin Chinese?
A: Mandarin is the first language of 867 million people and the second language of another 178 million, for a total of about 1 billion speakers worldwide. It is the national language of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. It is considered an important “world language” by the United States State Dept. and Dept. of Defense, both of which fund Chinese language programs at primary, secondary and graduate schools around the United States with the aim of increasing the number of fully bilingual, biliterate and bicultural Americans. In addition, China is a country of growing global importance, with rapidly increasing trade, manufacturing and cultural links to the rest of the world.
For those who already speak Mandarin or another Chinese dialect, Mandarin immersion allows your child to learn to read and write Chinese without having to send them to Saturday Chinese school or attempt to teach them yourself. In addition, many native speakers report that when their children being Mandarin immersion, they become less resistant to using Chinese because they see it as something lots of people do, not just something their parents want them to do.
The benefits of Mandarin immersion can include:
- making children world citizens
- giving them a broad perspective
- strengthening brain development
- access to more career opportunities
- connecting with family history
Q: Why start in Kindergarten?
A: The earlier a child is introduced to a language, the greater the likelihood they will become truly proficient in it. Children’s brains are naturally programmed to learn any language they are sufficiently exposed to perfectly and without accent. This ability declines with age, disappearing by high school.
Q: Won’t learning two languages confuse my child?
A: While immersion is not the right program for every child, studies have shown that immersion learners benefit cognitively, showing great non-verbal problem solving abilities and more flexible thinking. Children in immersion programs tend to score higher than other children as they progress through the school system.
Worldwide, speaking one language is actually fairly rare. Most children grow up speaking or being exposed to several languages, and in many countries they attend school in a language they don’t speak at home.
Although immersion education may seem cutting edge and new, it’s actually very old. In Western countries, immersion education (in Latin) was the norm until the 16th and 17th centuries, when teaching in local languages became common.
Countries which have wide-spread immersion programs include India (English), Belgium (Flemish and French) Singapore (Mandarin), most African countries (English and French), Canada (French) and much of China (Mandarin.) In Ireland, Irish immersion is popular, in Wales, Welsh immersion schools are growing rapidly.
For more information about academic research on immersion programs, we suggest going to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, which focuses on immersion. Their web site is located here: http://www.carla.umn.edu/immersion
San Francisco Public Schools & Mandarin
Q: What are the Mandarin immersion programs available in the San Francisco Public schools?
A: There are currently two.
Starr King Elementary School
1215 Carolina St.,
San Francisco, CA 94107
in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.
Starr King contains three academics strands:
- 1. General (English curriculum)
- 2. Mandarin Immersion (open to students of any language background.)
- 3. Special education program
- 4. Spanish bilingual, for students who speak Spanish at home and are learning English but want to keep their Spanish skills. Note, this program is currently being phased out and in 2011-2012 will have only 3rd, 4th and 5th grade .
The Mandarin Immersion strand began with two kindergarten classes in September of 2006. Two new kindergarten classes will be added each year until there are twelve classes total, from kindergarten to 5th grade, beginning in 2011-2012.
José Ortega Elementary School
400 Sergeant Street,
San Francisco, CA 94132
near San Francisco State University.
The school contains three strands:
- 1. General (English curriculum)
- 2. Mandarin Immersion
- 3. Special Education
The Mandarin Immersion strand began with one kindergarten class in September of 2007. A new kindergarten class will be added each year until there are six total, from kindergarten to 5th grade, beginning in 2012-2013.
Q: How did Mandarin Immersion begin in the San Francisco Public Schools?
A: Mandarin Immersion in the San Francisco Public Schools got its start in January of 2005 when a small group of parents and community members petitioned the San Francisco School District to start a Mandarin immersion program. A similar suggestion had been made in 1994, but Proposition 227, an anti-bilingual measure, had just been passed so the timing was poor. But in 2005 the District was ready. Parents for Public Schools (www.ppssf.org) began holding Mandarin Immersion meetings for interested parties. By 2006 the District had decided to begin a Mandarin Immersion program in the 2006-2007 school year.
Working with parents and community members, the District began the process of identifying possible sites. These needed to meet several criteria, with the major one having to be a school with enough empty classrooms to accommodate 12 new classes. A program with two Kindergarten classes required a school that could accommodate 240 additional students. That meant finding a school that was severely under-enrolled. Starr King was chosen as the pilot site because it had the space and was relatively accessible. Starr King principal at the time was Christopher Rosenberg. In the fall of 2010 Starr King got a new principal, Greg John, who is equally committed to Mandarin immersion.
The next year, the district decided to open a second Mandarin immersion program. José Ortega, led by Principal JoLynn Washington, was chosen as the second site. Because the school (called JOES by many) already had one Cantonese bilingual program, the decision was made to include only one Mandarin Immersion class per grade, to compliment the Cantonese program. The Cantonese bilingual program was phased out at the end of the 2009-2010 school year and those students folded into the Mandarin program.
Q: What other immersion programs are available in San Francisco Public Schools?
A: The District offers Spanish immersion at the following elementary schools: Alvarado, Buena Vista, Daniel Webster, Fairmount, Leonard Flynn, Marshall, Monroe, and Paul Revere. Korean immersion is offered at Claire Lilienthal Elementary School.
Q: Are other dialects of Chinese also taught in the San Francisco Public Schools?
A: Yes, there are three.
- West Portal Elementary (K-5)
- Alice Fong Yu Elementary School (K-8)
- Chinese Immersion School at DeAvila (K-5)
Alice Fong Yu and CIS are entirely Cantonese immersion schools, and West Portal contains an immersion strand. All introduce Mandarin in the upper grades as a supplement to the Cantonese Immersion program.
Cantonese is a southern Chinese dialect spoken by about 70 million people worldwide. Because many Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the south, it has historically been the most commonly spoken form of Chinese here. However is it being supplanted by Mandarin both in China (where children speak their home language at home but are taught in Mandarin) and in the U.S., where more and more immigrants come here speaking Mandarin.
Specifics about the programs
Q: Which kind of Chinese characters do children in Mandarin Immersion programs learn?
A: There are two kinds of Chinese characters, Simplified and Traditional. China instituted simplified characters (简体字 jianti zi), mostly derived from commonly-used handwriting shortcuts, beginning in the 1950s. Most characters are the same, but there are some differences. China, Singapore and Malaysia all use simplified characters. Taiwan and almost all immigrant Chinese communities around the world still use traditional characters (繁体字 fanti zi).
Because simplified characters are used in China, the decision was made to teach them in the Mandarin Immersion programs. The vast majority of written materials in Chinese today use simplified characters. However most materials in Chinese communities in the Bay area use traditional, which are also used by West Portal, Alice Fong Yu and CIS. In those programs, children are introduced to simplified characters in the upper grades.
Q: What are the goals of the Mandarin Immersion programs?
A: Students will be bilingual, biliterate and bicultural in both English and Mandarin Chinese. They will learn to read, write, speak and understand both languages.
Q: How fluent will they become?
A: Given the complexity of learning Mandarin, and the fact that students do not live in a predominantly Chinese-speaking world, children who don’t speak Chinese at home will become fluent speakers of Mandarin but will not be at the same level as students of the same age in China. The District’s target, based on over 30 years experience at Alice Fong Yu and West Portal, is that by fifth grade, Mandarin immersion students will have gained Mandarin reading and writing proficiency equal to somewhere between a late third grade to mid fourth grade level in China. The District also expects Mandarin immersion students will be on target with fifth grade English reading and writing.
Some Mandarin-speaking parents feel the level of Mandarin literacy expected of their children is not high enough, given their familiarity with the language. These families often supplement their children’s reading and writing. They’re also talking with the District about better meeting the needs of Mandarin-speaking children as their numbers in the program increase.
Q: Do students in Mandarin immersion not learn the same things children in general education programs learn?
A: Actually, they do, they just learn them in Mandarin. Every teacher in the San Francisco Public Schools has California State academic teaching credentials. Mandarin teachers also have a Bilingual Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development (BCLAD) certificates.
The teachers in the Mandarin immersion programs have in many cases painstakingly translated English-language materials into Chinese, so that the students are being taught the same subjects and material as General Education students, but in Mandarin. For example, in second grade students learn about the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of government in social studies and study a unit on geology in science. In 4th grade they learn about the California Missions. All in Mandarin.
Q: But my child doesn’t speak Mandarin. How can he or she learn in Mandarin?
A: Your child’s home room teacher will speak only Mandarin to your child from the day he or she arrives in Kindergarten. Their English teacher, who they will have for one class a day, will speak English to them. While it’s confusing for the kids at first, they quickly get the hang of it. All the teachers are warm, loving and patient. They use songs, body language, exaggerated facial expressions, hands-on activities, intonation and drawing to help children understand what they’re saying. Instruction is carefully designed so students can understand what is being taught.
Q: My child already speaks Chinese – will he or she fall behind in English?
A: Generally speaking, no. More than likely, the child will have English-speaking friends and will engage those friends in English instead of Mandarin. Any shortfall should be limited due to influences outside the classroom. The school also pulls out students who need extra help to work with tutors. However, you should monitor your child’s English development and supplement it with English reading and language exercises as necessary.
Q: Will my native Mandarin speaking child be bored in a beginning Mandarin class?
A: Generally speaking, no. The program is designed to challenge your child’s ability to absorb and learn two languages. Remember, they’re not being TAUGHT Mandarin, they’re being taught IN Mandarin. Native speakers can show off their Mandarin skills and will be given the chance to act as leaders during Chinese time. While they may be verbally fluent, it is assumed that children do not enter kindergarten reading and writing Chinese, so the task of gaining literacy, combined with the other math and science curriculum covered in Mandarin, should keep them busy.
Q: How are the Mandarin Immersion programs structured?
A: The District’s current schedule is given on the final page of this document. The goal is to get students to a strong command of Mandarin by the end of 3rd grade, then introduce more subjects taught in English. This is based on the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen, an influential bilingual researcher and educator, whose research helps form the underpinning of most bilingual and immersion programs. One of Krashen’s principles is that it’s important to solidify a student’s grasp of the target language (in this case Mandarin) before pushing on to more work in English. For more information about Krashen’s research, see http://www.languageimpact.com/articles/rw/krashenbk.htm.
However please understand that the curriculum is a work-in-progress and as the years progress the teachers, curriculum specialists, parents and principals may make small changes to better serve the students. This is entirely consistent with the District’s General Education programs, which are also tweaked yearly to better serve students.
Q: What about homework?
A: The teachers know that most parents don’t read and write both Mandarin and English fluently. Homework generally comes in a weekly packet with a cover page of instructions in English for parents or homework instructions are emailed to parents. Teachers also go over what’s expected with students.
Towards the beginning of the year the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council (the parent organization that supports Mandarin schools, teachers, parents and students) holds a “Chinese 101” workshops for parents to help them understand what their children are learning.
Later in the year the MIPC holds a workshop on how to use a Chinese-English dictionary and which ones to buy. The Cheng & Tsui Chinese Character Dictionary: A guide to the 2,000 most frequently-used characters is the current favorite of families with students in the younger grades. Though we’ve noticed that on-line dictionaries such as YellowBridge seem to be supplanting it of late.
Each school also has an active Mandarin Immersion parents e-mail list, so you can ask questions about specific homework assignments.
At José Ortega, several parents have formed Club Gongke (Homework Club) after school so students can get homework support.
Please remember that while the schools try to have consistent policies, every teacher has his or her own way of assigning and passing out homework. Students get a weekly packet or daily homework or some combination thereof, depending on their teacher and the material being covered. Summer homework is also sent home to keep up skills during the three month break.
Most importantly, experienced Mandarin immersion parents will tell you that the real hurdle isn’t being able to help your child with their Chinese of English homework, it’s getting them to sit down and do any homework at all! And that’s something parents in every language face.
Q: Is Mandarin immersion comparable to Spanish immersion?
A: Yes and no. In both, students learn a new language but there’s no getting around that learning to write Chinese is a bigger task than learning to write Spanish, which is after all one of the world’s most rationally-spelled languages.
You and your family are making a commitment to a long-term project when you enroll in Mandarin immersion. It won’t engulf your life, but it will definitely take some thought and patience.
Q: Isn’t Mandarin hard to learn?
A: For a child, it’s no harder to learn to speak Mandarin than to learn to speak any other language. Our brains are built to learn languages at that age and we’re good at it. One billion Chinese, about one out of every six people on the planet, manage to do it, and your child can too.
But yes, it is harder to learn to write Chinese. Research and years of experience by the State Department training diplomats indicates that it takes two to three times longer to master the Mandarin language, written and spoken, compared to languages with phonetic alphabets. As indicated above, students aren’t expected to be at a firth grade level in Mandarin by the end of fifth grade. Rather, your child should be reading and writing comparable to late third grade or early fourth grade. (Please note, this applies to Mandarin only. Your child will be reading and writing English at a fifth grade level!)
By the end of fifth grade, students will have learned to read and write about 500 characters, but will be able to read and recognize a total of between 800 to 1,200 depending on the student’s level. Between 1,500 to 2,000 are considered necessary to read a newspaper. To be a fully literate adult, around 5,000 are considered necessary, and for higher level studies it can go as high as 6,000.
Q: How much more work is Mandarin immersion than General Education?
A: We’re going to be honest with you – it’s more work for you as a parent. Mandarin immersion is not a cake walk. You could drop your kid in a GE program in Kindergarten and pick them up in 5th grade and they’d do okay. Of course they’ll do better if you put time in doing homework with them and taking an interest in their school work, but in general they’d do fine.
That’s not the case in Mandarin. Any child living in a home where Chinese is not spoken and read is going to have to work harder to get the most out of the program. You can drop your kid off in Kindergarten and come back in 5th grade and they’ll know a lot of Mandarin, but if you really want them to get the full benefit from this amazing opportunity being offered to us by the San Francisco Unified School District, you’re going to have to work at it.
What do we mean by that? Basically two things:
- you have to pay more attention to homework and at times provide an English-backup.
- you have to work a lot harder at getting Mandarin in your kid’s life.
Homework is just sitting down at the dining room table and being a presence to make sure they get their homework done. But because they will have learned subjects like math, science and social studies in Mandarin, it can sometimes be necessary for parents to go over the material in English at home, to make sure their children grasp it fully. Note that this isn’t all that different from what a lot of parents with kids in General Education do, but we’ve got to be more on top of it because it’s possible our kids may not be fully understanding some concepts and terms simply because the Mandarin is getting in the way.
None of this is all that hard. Grade-school math is within the grasp of all parents and you’ll easily be able to keep up. But it means having the will, the determination and the time to spend with your kids and make sure that they’re getting everything being presented in class.
One parent’s experience: “My 3rd grader knew all her shapes, but in Chinese. I found this out when I pointed at a pentagon and asked her what it was and she didn’t know. She knew the word in Mandarin, but I had to teach her the words in English. We ended up going through the shapes so that she knew all of them in both languages. It all made a lot more sense to her when I said that ‘penta’ meant ‘five’ in Greek and she told me that the word in Mandarin was the same, ‘five sides.’”
Getting Mandarin in your child’s life is also work. Non-Chinese speaking families have to make a concerted effort to find their kids Mandarin videos, books and games. Remember that while your child may spend four hours a day at school in Mandarin, the rest of the time they’re immersed in English. Kids in China spend six hours a day in Chinese and then another 10 in Chinese. Non-Chinese-speaking kids here don’t and we have to make up some of that difference or Mandarin starts to be something like Latin, a weird artifact language we’re making them learn that isn’t something used in the real world.
The MIPC (Mandarin Immersion Parents Council) does a lot of work finding videos, books and events that help bring more Mandarin into our kids’ lives. It can mean watching Taiwanese variety shows on TV on Saturday night, tuning in to the Mandarin pop music station (KSJO, 92.3 in San Francisco) or wandering around on the Chinese version of YouTube to find Mandarin cartoons, printing out book lists for the librarian at your public library and taking part in the active playground round-robin at both Starr King and JOES in Mandarin-dubbed Star Wars videos. As kids get older and begin to read in Chinese it means telling them they have to read 15 minutes a day in Mandarin before they can go back to Harry Potter. Again, none of it is impossible, but it does require a commitment on the part of families.
Does this mean you shouldn’t consider Mandarin? Of course not! Already there are literally hundreds of families in the Mandarin program who’ve done it and their experience will be a big help. But do think seriously about your interest and ability to take an active role in your child’s education before you check that box on the SFUSD enrollment form.
Q: Can I really help my kids with their Chinese homework if I don’t speak Chinese?
A: Yes. As we said above, the teachers know many parents don’t speak or read Chinese, so the instructions come home in both languages. In addition, most of it’s pretty straightforward. With online dictionaries (check out YellowBridge.com for example) even non-Chinese speakers can look up words and hear them pronounced easily. And there are multiple email lists for parents (for your child’s class, for the school and for the Mandarin program as a whole) where you can go for quick help when faced with something totally confusing – whether it’s in English, Chinese, math or the words to that crazy song about the Sun being a mass of incandescent gas!
Q: Can my child truly become fluent in a language we don’t speak at home?
A: Yes. Children the world over do it routinely. It generally takes three to five years to develop written and oral proficiency in the new language. Typically children soak up the language in the first two years. You’ll notice that they will understand more than they speak. By the second grade, teachers will encourage students to speak more in the target language until it becomes more natural.
That said, we’ve noticed that the non-Mandarin speakers in Mandarin immersion understand spoken Mandarin very well but aren’t as comfortable at actually speaking it as one might hope. This is more in the upper grades, in students who came in while the program was still under construction. But it’s of concern and something parents and teachers are paying attention to.
Q: My child claims she understands what the teacher is saying, but she can’t explain it to me. Does she really know what’s going on?
A: Yes. Remember, receptive and active language (understanding versus being able to translate) are two very different skills. Think of your child when she was a year-and-a-half-old. You could tell her to go to her room and get a red stuffed animal and bring it back to you, and she could do everything you asked, even though she couldn’t say more than a few words. The beginning of immersion is like that. They understand what they’re being told to do (watch it in action in the classroom) but they can’t translate it into English.
Q: The Mandarin Immersion programs are still being created. Where does their curriculum come from?
A: The District and the teachers are working together to create a unified curriculum that seamlessly moves from Kindergarten to fifth grade and beyond. They have received excellent help from already-existing Chinese programs such as the Cantonese immersion program at West Portal Elementary School.
The District, the teachers and the World Languages Program have created a Chinese curriculum committee which selects curriculum and creates standards and benchmarks for the Mandarin Program.
The Mandarin program uses a mixture of two textbook series, teacher-created worksheets and other materials. The series are:
My First Chinese Readers (from Better Chinese)
This is used for social language and grammar.
ShuāngShuāng, Bridging East-West through culture and language)
This is used for grammar and academic language and contains many well-known Chinese rhymes, tongue twisters, fables and poetry.
In addition, teachers use a variety of worksheets that they themselves create, or worksheets used in the West Portal Cantonese immersion program which they translate into Mandarin and simplified characters. The curriculum used in Mandarin immersion is theme-based, so students are working with similar sets of vocabulary and can build upon it across both their textbooks and their worksheets.
Q: How do Mandarin Immersion students do on the California state-wide education tests, the Standardized Testing and Reporting tests, the STAR tests?
A: The Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program tests California students on English-language arts, math, science, and social science. The test is given in English. So far only two classes of Mandarin immersion students have taken them and they did as well as students in their schools overall.
Q: I hear it’s hard to get Mandarin teachers. How can we be assured we’ll have enough teachers to fill all the slots?
A: It’s true that credentialed Mandarin teachers are in short supply nationwide. But thankfully, there are many Mandarin-speaking teachers already working within the San Francisco Public Schools, as well as numerous teachers within California who are trained and certified to teach in our state. One advantage our programs have is that it’s easier to hire a Mandarin-speaking teacher to live in San Francisco where he or she will have a community of other Mandarin-speakers as well as a strong and committed group of Mandarin teachers at both schools than in parts of the country where there is no support system, personal or professional. Our programs are known nationwide and we get resumes from as far away as Beijing. A challenge both schools face is that many excellent applicants are not properly credentialed or don’t have visas to work in the United States.
We have an active hiring committee made up of our principals, teachers, parents and district officials who work hard to find excellent teachers to teach in our growing programs.
Q: Will there be exchanges or class trips to China?
A: A Cultural Exchange parent committee has already begun work on creating Sister Schools in China and Taiwan. One topic of discussion is a possible exchange and trip to China when we have fifth graders beginning in 2012. That is likely to be a self-funded trip separate from the school, but there is a MIPC committee forming to help make it happen.
Q: What other resources are there for my family and I?
A: Both schools have active parent groups. Once you’re enrolled, you can join your school’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTA), as well as sign up for each school’s electronic mailing list. In addition, each classroom has its own email list serv.
For Mandarin immersion in general,
The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council (MIPC) is a group of parents that works to support our children, teachers, schools and the district in building Mandarin immersion. MIPC has an active electronic mailing list. To subscribe, send email to
The group’s web site is at
There’s also a Bay Area Chinese Education Community list at
And nationally, there’s a Mandarin Immersion list at
There’s also a list for trilingual families, who speak a language other than Mandarin or English at home (there is a large cohort of such families at both Starr King and Jose Ortega. The biggest group speaks Spanish, but we’ve also got Portuguese, Italian, Turkish and others.) If you have questions about whether it’s too much to do three languages, this is the place to ask them.
What about English?
Q: From whom do students learn English?
A: At both Starr King and José Ortega, students learn Mandarin from Kindergarten through the third grade from their home room teacher and go to another Mandarin program teacher for English period, so their home room teacher never speaks to them in English.
Beginning in the fourth grade and through the fifth grade, students continue to learn Mandarin from their home room teacher but go to a General Education program teacher for English.
Q: My child does not speak English, how will immersion affect how my child learns it?
A: All students in Mandarin immersion get one period of English language arts per day. In addition, English Learners get English Language Development instruction specifically designed for English Learners. Your child’s teachers will be carefully monitoring how well they are learning English.
Many parents are fearful that immersion may delay their child’s learning to speak, read and write in English. It’s true that some students go through an initial lag. However research shows that the immersion experience actually advances English language development long term. The amount of instruction in English increases every year until half of the day is spent in English. After three to four years, immersion students typically do as well as or better than their peers in general education. It is important hat parents understand that an initial lag is to be expected and may be temporary. Again, your child’s teacher will carefully monitor your child’s progress and will alert you if she or he has concerns.
Q: We speak English at home, but will my child learn to read and write it?
A: Yes, but somewhat more slowly than his or her peers at a non-immersion program. Reading, word knowledge and spelling may lag a year or so behind when students first enter school, but by fifth grade immersion students catch up and often exceed non-immersion students.
Q: I’m worried that my child will fall behind in English.
A: Any language immersion program, but Mandarin especially, is a journey that needs to last for between seven and nine years for students to get all the possible benefit from the program. All the research shows that immersion is a long-term process. Students are somewhat behind in English at the beginning, but by 5th and 6th grade may not only catch up but often surpass their English-only peers.
Parents should realize that they’re making a long-term commitment to immersion. It’s not something that you start with to check out and then expect that you can hop out in 3rd grade and your child will have 3rd grade competency in both English and Mandarin.
Q: What’s “First Grade Freak-Out” and what’s its cure?
A: It’s a malady common to some immersion parents, especially in Chinese immersion. Somewhere about halfway through first grade (though it can hit as early as Kindergarten or as late as second grade), they compare what their child is doing in English with what children they known in general education programs are doing and are filled with dread that their child is “behind.”
They immediately begin to worry that their child will never catch up, never master written English, probably never graduate from high school, certainly never graduate from college and end up unemployable and homeless. Of course, none of that is true, but what parent doesn’t worry about their child’s future?
The cure for this extremely common condition is time and information.
So while yes, it’s true that a first grader in Mandarin immersion may not be at the same level in English as their general education peers, by 5th grade they’ll be at or above that level and they’ll read, write and speak Mandarin. So the cure to the ‘first grade freak-out’ is to stay calm and remember that you’ve made a long-term commitment to your child’s future by enrolling him or her into immersion. For particularly difficult cases, we suggest speaking with your child’s teacher and principal. And spend as much time as you can in his or her classroom, even become a classroom helper, so you see exactly how much Chinese they understand (it can be eye-opening) and then spend some time on the playground, where you’ll quickly realize that their command of English is flawless.
For those with more questions, we suggest you read Struggling Learners and Language Immersion Education: Research-based, Practitioner-informed Responses to Educators’ Top Questions, which is available from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. Ordering information is available from http://www.carla.umn.edu/immersion/learners.html.
Q: Do the schools have active PTA’s?
A: Yes. Both are vibrant and actively doing work for their school communities. As enrollment increases each year, they will become even more active.
Q: What kinds of all-school activities do the schools have?
A: At Starr king, the school year includes the following events:
- Beginning of school BBQ
- Back to School Night
- Family literacy, Books for Dinner night
- Chinese New Year parade
- School Car Wash fundraiser
- Science Fair
- International Potluck
At José Ortega, the school year includes the following events:
- Beginning of school picnic
- Back-to-School Night
- Chinese New Year parade
- Umoja (“Unity”) Celebration
- Family Nights: Reading, Math, and Science themes
- Umoja Carnival
- School Spirit Days
Q: How can I get my child ready for Kindergarten?
A: Mandarin Immersion parents begin organizing play dates for incoming Kindergarteners as soon as the District admission letters go out. They continue throughout the summer, so incoming students have a chance to get to know their classmates-to-be, which makes the transition to Kindergarten easier.
Q: What can I expect when school starts?
A: When Kindergarten first begins, your child may be confused or frustrated. He or she may be tired at the end of the day (though that’s not really an immersion thing, it’s common to most Kindergarteners.)
Still, learning a new language is a challenge. Reassure your child and express confidence in his or her abilities. This transition phase is common among first-time immersion learners and generally lasts from two weeks to two months. Children are generally very resilient and will soon feel comfortable in the new language.
Q: What about Gifted and Talented Education programs at Starr King and José Ortega?
A: GATE programs in San Francisco public schools don’t really exist any more, or at least they’re not funded. At both Starr King and José Ortega students can be GATE identified but there is no actual specific programming to address the needs of these children. This seems to be true across the board in San Francisco Public School. Please feel free to consult the school administrators, the District and the School Board if you have strong feelings about this. Note that it’s something the schools themselves have little control over.
However teachers at both Starr King and José Ortega work to differentiate their curriculums to insure that all learners’ needs are met and beginning in Kindergarten.
At Starr King, to add enrichment parents have started a Math Club, which they hope will become a Math Olympiad team. There’s also an Odyssey of the Mind team at the school.
Q: Realistically, how hard is it to get in to either Starr King or José Ortega’s Mandarin Immersion programs?
A: Well, not as hard as Clarendon or Rooftop, but not as easy as some others.
The MI programs are both set up as two-way immersion. That means that one third of the seats in Kindergarten are saved for Mandarin-speaking kids, one third for English-speaking kids and one third for kids who are bilingual. The English-speaking kids can come from a household where any language is spoken, but must also be fluent in English.
The goal is to have children from both language groups, so that they can teach each other. The ideal is peer matching, where it’s 33/33/33.
On the lottery front, what that means is that there are 15 seats for incoming non-Mandarin-speaking kindergarteners at Starr King and 7 at José Ortega every year. The other 24 and 14 seats are reserved for Mandarin-speaking children.
However, thus far, far fewer Mandarin-speaking families have applied, though the number increases every year. So the English-speaking seats are filled up in Round One of the lottery, and then the remaining seats (generally it’s been about 2/3rds of the total number of seats) open up for English-speaking kids in the second round.
Both programs filled for the 2011-2012 school year. But the waiting lists are short. Many families got in on the second round and a few during open enrollment.
So remember that 60 Mandarin immersion kindergarten seats open up every fall, which means there’s a good chance your child will get in, but it could be in the second round. If you really want Mandarin, be sure to put Starr King and/or José Ortega on the top of the list when you apply for an elementary school and be sure to specify the Mandarin Immersion program. The Educational Placement Center may assume you want a General Education program if you don’t put down Mandarin Immersion.
Q: What about coming in first grade?
A: If there are spaces available (generally there are one or two each year at each school) children may enter Mandarin immersion programs without any prior Mandarin experience in first grade. From second grade on they must take a test to show that their Mandarin is sufficient for them to keep up. That could include children educated in China or who have attended other Chinese schools in the United States. Each year several students join Starr King and José Ortega’s classes.
While any child is welcome to enter the program at first grade, it is something of a steep learning curve. Past experience has shown that it’s helpful if they’ve had some exposure to Mandarin before hand, although of course children have done just fine with none. There are several summer Mandarin programs available that can at least help your child become somewhat comfortable with a Mandarin environment if you’re planning on applying for first grade. Contact the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council at http://miparentscouncil.org/ to get information on current summer and year-round programs.
Q: Will the district open a third Mandarin immersion school?
A: There are rumors that a third Mandarin immersion program will be opened in 2012-2013, probably in the Bayview district. But now one can confirm that.
Q: Will my child interact with children in the other strands at the schools?
A: Yes. Both Starr King and José Ortega are strong communities made up of children and parents from all the strands in their schools. While certain things are specific to Mandarin Immersion, we are all a part of the greater school community. Your child will be in classes with students from the entire school, not just from the Mandarin strand.
For example, at Starr King from Kindergarten on, students in all strands participate in library and physical education together. Beginning in third grade the Mandarin Immersion students, General Education and Spanish bilingual students will all have English together, broken up into classes of fewer than 20 students each.
Q: How big are the schools? What’s the breakdown of students?
A: At Starr King for 2011/2012 the projected numbers are roughly:
30 Spanish Bilingual
240 Mandarin Immersion
30 Special Education
At José Ortega for 2010/2011, the projected numbers are roughly:
105 Mandarin Immersion
20 Special Education
Each year Starr King will add two Kindergarten classes, and in the fall of 2011 will have its full complement of 12 Mandarin immersion classes, K through 5, with approximately 240 students.
Each year José Ortega will add one Kindergarten class, and in the fall of 2012 will have its full complement of six Mandarin immersion classes, K through 5, with approximately 120 students.
Q: What’s the ethnic makeup of the Mandarin Immersion programs?
A: They are very ethnically and linguistically diverse, with children of every race, family make-up and socio-economic background, coming from all parts of the city. It’s difficult to specify because the makeup of the incoming kindergarten class can vary from year to year.
Q: What’s the schedule?
A: At Starr King you can drop children off as early as 8:00. School begins at 8:40. School ends at 2:40.
At José Ortega, you can drop children off as early as 7:30. School begins at 7:50. School ends at 1:50.
Q: What about after school care?
A: Starr King currently has several aftercare possibilities:
Starr King On-Site After School Program
Starr King After School Program is a SF Team/ExCel grant funded program whose main focus is to improve literacy in our school through creative academic and enrichment activities. We serve the students of Starr King Elementary with homework assistance, literacy based programs, and enrichment activities. Our activities include SPARKS sports, violin and cello, arts and crafts, and chess. Our goal as an after school program is to help students attain the skills needed to reach their potential while having fun.
On Starr King’s campus, 2:40-6pm, M-F, pick up no earlier than 5:30.
This program has a mandatory attendance policy. Tutoring and medical absences are excused.
Contact Jorge Garcia, Program Director, at 415.515.9944 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Program is free of cost.
Recreation & Park After School Program
San Francisco’s Recreation & Parks Department operates an after-care program at the Jackson Playground in Potrero Hill. Attendance is optional and student may be picked-up early. Bus transportation to the program is provided. Components of the program include homework assistance, an environment that will promote literacy, encourage communication and empowerment skills while providing recreation activities that include sports, group games, arts and culture, community exploration and seasonal special events. Children also visit the Potrero Hill library weekly.
Potrero Hill Recreation Center, 801 Arkansas Street, 2:40-5:30pm, M-F
2010-2011 cost is $665/year
Register at http://sfreconline.org, or by phone 415.831.6800
Fei Tian Academy of the Arts
Fei Tian Academy of the Arts California offers a bilingual after-school. This unique program offers a Chinese immersion experience with intensive language training and rich cultural activities. Culture education classes include classical Chinese dance, Chinese calligraphy, painting, and much more. Math and homework support can be included. There is currently a bus that transports students to the Academy for an additional charge.
2:40 – 6:00pm, M-F, earlier pick-ups and partial weeks are options
Contact: Cecilia Xiong, 101 15th Street, www.feitian-california.org, 415.431.3161
$420/Month for full schedule
Presidio Knolls After School Program
The school will open a new campus south of Market St. which will begin offering an afterschool program for current Mandarin immersion students K-5 in 2011-2012. For more information, contact the school at http://www.presidioknolls.org, (415) 202-0770, ContactUs@PresidioKnolls.org
Other options – (no SK families participating in 2010-2011)
CAIS (Chinese American International School)
CAIS welcomes students from Starr King’s Mandarin Immersion program to their campus after school. No transportation is available from Starr King.
3 – 6pm, Monday through Friday
150 Oak Street,
Contact: Kevin Lee, Director of Auxiliary Programs, email@example.com, 415.865.6000
José Ortega offers two aftercare possibilities as well:
1. YMCA school-based aftercare: The Stonestown YMCA Umoja After School program serves K through fifth grades and offers academic support (homework help), project-based learning, recreation, craft activities and enrichment. Field trips are included.
A sliding scale cost or full scholarships determine the pick-up time, which can be as late as between 5:30 and 6:00 pm. There is no waiting list and the program can accommodate as many students as necessarily. In 2010-2011, more than half the student population at Ortega attended the Y’s after school program.
2 . Fei Tian Academy of the Arts: A Fei Tian instructor comes up with a van to take Jose Ortega students to the Academy’s afterschool arts program. More information at http://www.feitian-california.org.
Q: Okay, these programs sound great for elementary school, but what about Middle School?
A: There is currently no Mandarin Immersion middle school program because prior to 2006 there were no Mandarin Immersion students in the San Francisco Public Schools. However the District will create a program which will be ready when the Mandarin immersion students enter middle school in 2013. The District plans to announce which middle school our students will feed to by the summer of 2011. Currently it appears that Aptos Middle school will be the location of the Mandarin immersion program but it depends upon the final vote of the Board of Education this summer.
The District says that Mandarin immersion students will have two classes in Mandarin a day, one in Mandarin language arts and one in Social Studies. This is what Cantonese and Spanish immersion students are offered in middle school.
Once you’re in, here are some hints from the Mandarin immersion teachers:
Q: How can families help their children learn Mandarin?
A: First, learn about how immersion programs work so that you understand what and how your child is learning and most importantly when they’ll be learning certain things. Attend school orientation workshops and read the notes that come home in your child’s homework. If you have questions or don’t quite know what’s happening in the classroom (your child may not always be able to explain it clearly) ask the teacher — they’re your best resource.
Q: It doesn’t seem like my child is really learning that much, what’s going on in the classroom?
A: One of the things parents in Immersion programs have to remember is that they may not always be aware of what’s going on in the classroom because it’s happening in a language they don’t speak, whether that language is English or Mandarin. That can make a big piece of the curriculum ‘invisible’ to families. Ask your child about what they did during the day (though remember that five-, six- and seven- year-olds often aren’t all the best reporters). Then ask what language they learned it in. And of course the teachers are always happy to discuss what they’re teaching. Some teachers also post the week’s learning objectives in their classrooms.
To get a taste of what your child’s day is like, become a classroom helper. Many teachers welcome help in their classrooms although not within the first two weeks of school (to allow time for teacher-student bonding). You don’t even need to speak Mandarin.
Q: How can I help my child learn to write characters properly?
A: If you can write Chinese, supervising your child to make sure they write their characters using the correct stroke order is very important.
If you don’t write Chinese, attend the beginning-of-the-year workshop where teachers will give a brief overview of how to use a Chinese dictionary and how to write characters. Your child’s homework will show the stroke order (in which order the lines of the character are written) and make sure they follow that. Ask other parents who write Chinese or the teacher or even older students for help!
Q: How else can I help?
A: Make homework a part of daily life. In the Mandarin Immersion program, students get a weekly packet of homework. Most families have learned the hard way that doing a little bit of homework every day makes for fewer tears and tantrums than doing it all in one night!
Teachers estimate that homework times should be around:
K- 15 min homework daily
1st- 25 min homework daily
2nd-30 min homework daily
But please note that every child is different and that these times can vary.
The most important thing to remember is that a little time spent reinforcing what your child learns in school every day at home is what’s important. Help your child by carving out time for them to focus on homework every day, and be available to help and answer questions.
If your child completes his or her homework in an after school program, it is still important to make sure it is done completely and correctly.
Some things require sitting down at a table to write. But for the weekly quizzes in English and Chinese you can simply carry flash cards in your pocket and ask a question or two when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket or for the bus. Make learning a part of family life, not just something that ends at 2:40. But also don’t let it overwhelm you or your child.
Q: What do teachers say works best?
A: When parents assist with homework (read the directions).
When parents provide additional support.
When parents show interest about their child’s learning.
Q: What do teachers know doesn’t work?
A: Few children, especially in the early grades, have the discipline to actually get their homework done without supervision. Parents need to lead this process and not just tell their children that they are in charge of getting homework done. Help your child create a homework routine by creating a consistent time and place for doing homework, and by making sure he or she sits down and comprehends the material
Q: What’s the most important thing I can do for my child to help them learn?
A: Read to your child, in English and Chinese, every day. It’s the single best thing you can do to help them learn. The MIPC website has a list of many helpful resources for Chinese reading materials, including books that come on CD that you child can listen to while they turn the pages of the book. There are also now two excellent web and iphone-based programs that will read to your children in Mandarin while
‘turning the pages’ of a virtual book. These are 5QChannel.com and Childroad.com.
Q: How much time will my child spend learning in Mandarin versus English later on?
A: The District’s current schedule is given below. However please understand that the curriculum is a work-in-progress and as the years progress the teachers, curriculum specialists, parents and principals may make changes to better serve the students.
Grade Hours Language in Subject
K 1:00 English Language Arts
1:00 Chinese Math
2:30 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Science, Art
0:15 Chinese Physical Education
1st 1:00 English Language Arts
1:00 Chinese Math
2:30 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Science, Art
0:15 Chinese Physical Education
2nd 1:30 English Language arts
1:00 Chinese Math
2:00 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Science, Art
0:15 Chinese Physical Education
3rd 1:30 English Language arts
1:00 Chinese Math
2:00 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Science, Art
0:15 Chinese Physical Education
4th 1:45 English Language arts
0.45 English Science
1:00 Chinese Math
1:30 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Art, PE
5th 1:45 English Language arts
0.45 English Science
1:00 Chinese Math
1:30 Chinese Chinese, Social Studies, Art, PE