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School Closeup: Mandarin Immersion in Portland, Ore.

January 22, 2010

By Laurie Bouck, Jose Ortega parent

In 1998, the Portland, Oregon public school district (PPS) started a Mandarin Immersion program that they planned to run from kindergarten through 12th grade. The PPS already had Japanese and Spanish immersion programs within their school system, and added the Mandarin program at the urging of parents and teachers.

The PPS program began at the K-5 Woodstock Elementary School, an underenrolled elementary school with space for the program, with a single blended kindergarten/first grade class of 24 students. (Like Ortega and Starr King, Woodstock Elementary also has other non-Mandarin tracks for students.) In 2006, Woodstock increased its number of classes, ultimately serving up to 60 children per grade in kindergarten through third grade.

As the students progressed through the classes, a middle school program at Portland’s Hosford Middle School and (in 2008) a high school program at Cleveland High School were added to the Mandarin track. In middle and high school, students study in Mandarin for about two hours a day.

SFUSD’s Program compared to PPS Program

The Portland program differs from ours in several significant ways. First of all, the Portland program offers instruction in Mandarin for 50% of the class time in grades K-5, while the SFUSD program begins with about 80% instruction in Mandarin at the kindergarten level, decreasing the Mandarin instruction gradually to 50% by the 5th grade. Woodstock also hosts a teacher exchange with its sister school in Suzhou, China, to expand students’ experience of Chinese language and culture.

In the Portland Public School district, some schools offer free full-day kindergarten, and other schools (including Woodstock) offer only a half-day of free kindergarten. Parents who want full-day kindergarten for their children at the half-day schools must pay a monthly fee to cover the other half-day. Woodstock Elementary’s Mandarin program is a full-day kindergarten program, and to cover the cost parents must pay $335 per month throughout the kindergarten year. Tuition waivers are available for families unable to pay for full-day kindergarten.

At Woodstock Elementary, the local YMCA provides before and after-school care. There are also a variety of free or fee-based after-school activities, including a chess club, kung fu, and a Mandarin homework club twice a week, run by parent volunteers and teachers.

Enrichment and Funding

A two-week trip to China in the 8th grade, for a research project the children work on all year, is funded by grants, fundraising, and family contributions. Inaugurated in 2008, the trip to China caps off their early school experience of the language.

The parent group Shu Ren of Portland supports the Mandarin program in the Portland public schools. The organization, governed by a board of directors, supports parents with children in the program, supports enrichments such as the eighth-grade trip to China and the homework club, and advocates for the immersion program.

The Portland Public schools have also partnered with Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene to promote Mandarin instruction in grades K-12 and among college undergraduates (grades 13-16). This K-16 Oregon Chinese Flagship Program is funded by the nationwide Language Flagship organization, a partnership between the federal government, businesses, and educational institutions designed to help students learn non-Western languages. The Language Flagship currently sponsors public school language immersion programs in Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon, and Ohio.

Challenges of a Mandarin Program

Portland has encountered many of the same challenges as us. “Our ongoing challenge is securing resource materials and curriculum written in Mandarin that are age-appropriate,” an administrator explained in an email. “Another big challenge that we have met has been in securing teachers” with the appropriate teaching experience and licensing to work in the United States.

“As we expanded schools,” the administrator wrote, they ran in to obstacles “identifying the school site, establishing feeder pattern, creating a program at the next level that met the instructional requirements for middle and high school levels, and, again, securing staff who had experience at the secondary level and identifying age-appropriate materials.” District-wide, administrators had to work to promote the program within Portland and to clarify “procedures for entry into the [lottery-based] program.”

The MIPC was  unable to directly contact any parents in the program and welcome their feedback and comments on this profile of Portland’s Mandarin immersion program.

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