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Mandarin saves a school in Venice, Calif.

August 12, 2011

By Elizabeth Weise

In 2009, Broadway Elementary, housed in a lovely Spanish-style building from 1924, was dying. The public school in Venice, Calif. could barely fill seven classes, one for each grade from Kindergarten to 6th.

“Three years in a row I was called to the district for a small school meeting where we were offered to stay where we were but take on two schools” as principal, says Principal Susan Wang.

She’d come to Broadway as principal in 2008-2009. Together, she and the community had worked tremendously hard to improve the school. “We raised our API by 107 points!” she says proudly. But she could see the handwriting on the wall – not enough families were sending their children there to keep the school open. Things seemed hopeless.

One thing she’s tried was adding Mandarin classes for students in an attempt to pull in new families. Wang is originally from Taiwan and a fluent speaker of Mandarin, and she’d found a way to create the classes, called FLES (foreign language in elementary school) in education-speak, through the Confucius Institute at UCLA.

“Though the whole year through we had a banner that said ‘We Have FLES,’ nobody came here because of that,” she says.

But something else happened, something that surprised her.

Through her door came a steady stream of parents who said “I don’t want FLES, I want immersion. If you have it, I’ll come.”

So Wang asked them to put the word out on local parent email lists. In 2009 she was able to go to the District and say ‘I’ve got 40 kids who want Mandarin Immersion at Broadway.'”

That year, Broadway had 46 students in Kindergarten. In 2011-2012 there are 96.

Broadway began with two Mandarin immersion Kindergartens for the 2010-2011 school year. It’s proven so overwhelmingly popular that in 2011-2012 it will expand to four Mandarin Kinder classes of 24 students each. And for the first time in memory there’s a waiting list for seats at Broadway.

Los Angeles already had one Mandarin immersion school, City Terrace Elementary in East. Los Angeles. But it was over 25 miles to the west (Los Angles is BIG) so it wasn’t an option for West-side parents to send their children there. Venice, on the beach between Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey, was close.

“The Mandarin immersion program is going very, very well,” says Broadway’s Wang. “It’s brought in a bunch of the most wonderful parents on Earth, they help out on everything. Broadway has been here since 1924 and now with the new parents coming, and with the support of some existing Broadway parents, in we have a booster club for the first time in its history.”

This year the school was able to raise a stunning $20,000 to support school programs, in just the organization’s first year. Its Spring Festival alone raised $13,000.

A changed neighborhood

Broadway’s Venice neighborhood has changed drastically over the past 20 years, becoming much safer and peaceful. But before immersion came to the school not enough parents trusted the shift.

“Eighteen years ago there were 17 people shot dead and 58 gun shot injuries, all gang related” in the neighborhood, says Wang. Now Venice has gone from being primarily lower income to more mixed. Parts have gentrified and become extremely hip. “We’ve got real diversity in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic background,” says Wang. “It’s not white picket fences and all white families, it’s a truly diverse neighborhood, some of the poorest people and some of the wealthiest parents in Los Angeles,” says Wang.

But although there’s a significant white and Asian population in Venice, most of those families send their children to private schools. But even the Latino and African-American families were going to other schools in the district, leaving it to slow whither away.

The Broadway Mandarin program changed that. In Los Angeles, as in many large, urban school districts, middle and upper middle class families tend to look for either magnet or immersion programs if they consider the public schools at all. Wang knows that were it not for Mandarin, many of the Kindergarten parents in the program “would not have sent their kids to Broadway, or LAUSD.”

The Mandarin program integrated the school, says one LA resident. “In Los Angeles we have some very affluent pockets, and they go to nearby schools. But Caucasian families skipped us. When they looked on the playground and they saw shades of brown, they didn’t want to go here.”

As Wang remembers it “Two years ago a mom told me, ‘It’s a lovely school, it’s a great program, but I don’t want my kids to be the only white kids in the class.’ I told her if she came here, he wouldn’t be the only white kid.”

The mom wasn’t convinced. But with the arrival of Mandarin, many others were. Buzz in the community has been “great,” says Jean Hsi, mom to an incoming Kindergartener. Interestingly, a large percentage of them are American-born Chinese, often second-generation Mandarin speakers.

That was a surprise to Hsi, who’s a Mandarin speaker herself. She thought many first generation Mandarin speaking immigrants would have wanted the program, but they told her that they’re more concerned about their children learning English. “They say ‘I’m not really sure my kids really need to learn to speak Mandarin, we prefer they learn at home with us,'” she says.

Second generation families are much more committed to having their children learn to read, write and speak Mandarin in school, she says. These families may speak Mandarin, or at least some, “they learned some in Saturday school and then the grandparents speak it. Or they’re hiring Chinese-speaking nannies.”

“The majority of Asian parents who send their children here grew up not speaking Chinese and they regret it. Their parents felt that English was what was going to bring them success. Now their back so their children can learn Chinese,” says Wang.

Changing school, new problems

The transition has brought on some growing pains, says Wang. While some in the school community have embraced the Mandarin program as a way to keep their school open, others have expressed anger that white and Asian families are coming into what they feel is “their” school.

This year, 2011-2012, the school will have six Mandarin immersion classes, four in Kindergarten and two in 1st grade while its English program has eight, one each for Kindergarten through sixth grade. “So in two years the Mandarin immersion is almost the size of the English program,” she says.

When Broadway was English-only, its population was 85% Latino and 13% African-American and 2% white.  Today’s it’s much more diverse and closer to Los Angeles as a whole.

Now that Mandarin has proven to be a hit, it raises another problem.  With four Kindergartens of Mandarin and two in first grade, it won’t be able to fit in Broadway in a few years if the English language program stays as well. If the Mandarin program went down to two Kindergarten classes, for a total of 14 Mandarin classes once it reaches full roll-out with Kindergarten through 6th grade, it could fit. At four Kinder classes, for a total of 24 classes, it won’t. Though because of attrition it’s likely that it would only need 20 classes, as in the upper grade the number of students tends to go down as children move and there are no Mandarin-proficient 4th and 5th graders to bring in.

Now the question is what to do with a thriving Mandarin program, which could easily fill Broadway, and the slowly shrinking English program. “The existing number of classrooms will not be able to accommodate the growing Mandarin immersion population and the English program, and that the District will have to find a solution to this problem,” says Wang.

That could mean moving the Mandarin program, which might lead to Broadway closing, one parent said. But in politically touchy Los Angeles, there might be enough political pressure to do just that, suggested one incoming parent who asked not to be named.

Immersion popular in LA

Los Angles Unified is the second largest school district in the country had has invested heavily in immersion schools. It currently has 25 Spanish immersion elementary schools, eight Korean immersion and now 2 Mandarin immersion. A third, at Escalar Elementary school in the middle of LA’s China town, will open in 2011-2012.

LAUSD is building an instructional pipeline for Mandarin. The local middle school, Mark Twain, has become a world language magnet school. LA’s first Spanish immersion schools feeds to it as well. The local high school will have AP Mandarin when the time comes.

The programs are popular with parents and that’s made them popular with the school district. “They suddenly realized with the budget crisis that we lose $5 to $6 million dollars a year because our residents go out of our district to go other dual language programs,” says Wang.

Educators like them because “those of us who are in it are learning what the research shows and how powerful this is,” says Wang. Parents “are recognizing how important it is — that the world no longer revolves around English-speaking countries.”

Teachers are hard to come by

Finding qualified teachers is one of their most limiting factors. “I have tons of people emails me from other states who don’t have California credentials and people emailing from China and Taiwan, but they don’t have credentials.”

“People have this misconception hat if they speak Chinese they can teach Chinese,” she says of some of the applicants.

Another problem is that some of the teachers she’s interviewed didn’t want to live so far away from LA’s China town.

She’s a big fan of having two Mandarin classrooms per grade. The program is 50% English/50% Mandarin, and that allows her to have one Mandarin teacher and one English teacher per grade. “It makes sense to have native speakers teach in their own language and also the power of collaborating in both languages.”

The District had previously had some 90%/10% Spanish immersion programs, but from now on it’s only doing 50%/50%, in part to insure that English language learners get enough instruction in English that they can do well on the state standardized tests on which so much school funding depends.

Only a year in, Wang’s blow away by the progress the 48 Mandarin immersion students have made. “The kids have learned such a tremendous amount of Chinese, it’s amazing,” she says.

Moving forward

Instead of going to meetings about closing or consolidating her school, Wang now deals with a constant stream of phone calls and visits from teachers, parents and principals from outside of Los Angeles who want to replicate what she’s done. “I have parents from Orange County who call saying they want to start one. I’ve talked to people from Ohio, from Arizona. I don’t know how they found out about Broadway.”

The shift even in her lifetime has been remarkable, she says. “When I was growing up, Mandarin speaking was not significant, Taiwan had so few people and China was locked up, nobody in, nobody out.” That’s all changed now. Parents tell her China is their children’s future.

The Mandarin students don’t realize that their teachers even can speak English, which helps give them a little nudge to speak Chinese in the classroom.

At first it seemed like a miracle. “In October, (one of our Mandarin Kindergarten teachers) came in to my office elated, to tell me that one of the four Latino kids had asked to go to the bathroom in Mandarin.

“Now when I got to the classroom they’re speaking Mandarin to each other, they used to speak English with each other. it’s really authentic. they truly don’t believe that their Mandarin teachers speak English.”

“They say ‘We think Ms. Wong is learning some English from Ms. Chen!”

Contact info:

Broadway Elementary School

1015 Lincoln Blvd.Venice, CA 90291

T: 310-392-4944

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 14, 2011 7:17 pm

    Fantastic article. This just confirms what a language immersion program can do for a school.
    Michele Robin

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