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How to start a Mandarin immersion parents group

November 6, 2012

A Mandarin Immersion Parents Council meeting at Jose Ortega Elementary school in San Francisco, Sept. 7, 2010. Photo by Elizabeth Weise.

By Elizabeth Weise

This is a work-in-progress, based on experiences in San Francisco’s Mandarin immersion program and stories from other schools. I welcome stories, ideas and suggestions on other school experiences, so we can add to this document and make it more useful to everyone.

Any school that has a Mandarin immersion program can probably use a parent support network. That’s how ours, the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, started in San Francisco. We realized that our teachers, kids and parents needed help and that the school district couldn’t do it all. That’s where parents came in.

We began very simply, just a meeting of parents with kids in Mandarin immersion about how to help with homework. We created a Yahoo email group so we could have a mailing list so people could ask questions. We had a few more meetings covering basic things like how to look up words in a Chinese dictionary (a real skill unto itself, if you don’t speak Chinese) and what summer programs were available for kids in our area. We also started a blog where we could post some of the stuff we came up with.

That was back in 2008. It took us four years, until May of 2012, that we became a non-profit that could raise money to support our programs. We also got a new name: 金山中文教育协会/Jinshan Mandarin Education Council, and a new web site, which you can see at

So my message here is this – parents play a huge role in making a Mandarin immersion program work, and you can start very simply. Don’t let worries about not being big or formal or bilingual enough stop you – your kids, your teachers and the other families need you! So here are some basic suggestions. Nothing fancy but some ideas on how you can get parent support easily organized.

First, create an email list. Yahoo groups makes it really easy and they’re free, but there are many ways to do it. Give it a simple name that will cover all the schools in your school district that are likely to get Mandarin. Remember that you may just have Kindergarten and first grade now, but eventually there will be a Middle School and High School component. So Houston Mandarin immersion works better than Gordon Elementary Mandarin immersion. The list will give a chance for families to share resources, ask homework questions and generally support one and other.

If you’ve got both English and Chinese-speaking families in your program, try to start out bilingual. It will make your group welcoming for everyone. But if you don’t have many Chinese-speaking families, don’t let being primarily English-speaking stop you. Everything can happen in time. Better to start now and build over time. As Voltaire said, Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Remember, too, that email lists need someone to watch over them. As we all know, sometimes people post without thinking, or let their frustration or anger spill over into words they would never say to someone’s face. Email lists are powerful, useful, tools, but it also helps to lay some ground rules and have a list coordinator to enforce them. Simple rules you can start with are:

– Play nice. Be polite.

– If someone can’t make themselves play nice, give them a time out.

– Never say anything in email you wouldn’t say face to face.

– Never say anything in email you wouldn’t get up and say at a PTA meeting.

If you’ve got a parent that’s handy wth the internet, start a website for your group. Something simple and easy but a place where current parents, and families considering your program, can come for information. Having an internet presence makes you much more ‘real’ to families outside the school, which will help your program over time. Especially if you’re a strand in a larger school, a separate site can be a place where you can place Mandarin-specific information. Remember to make it program-specific, not school-specific. Over time your program will be in at least three schools – elementary, middle and high school. is one place that offers free websites and it’s easy to figure out, but of course there are many other options.

Second, get parents in the program together for a meeting. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal, just information. It can be at school in the evening, or at someone’s house on the weekend or even at a local coffee shop after morning drop-off if that works best. Some possible topics that we’ve done over the years:

  • Welcome to Mandarin immersion and our program. How MI works in your school district and what you can expect your child to learn. (Get someone from the District or a teacher to present if you can.)
  • How to use a Chinese Dictionary/Chinese 101: A basic introduction to how Chinese works (ask a teacher or bilingual parent to present this.)
  • Parent-tested suggestions on how to help your kids with homework. Share tips and ideas. Have one of your teachers walk parents through a sample homework packet, so parents can figure out how it’s structured so they know how to help their kids at home.
  • Extracurricular and summer programs in Mandarin in your area. These may or may not exist – they’ll come eventually as the community realizes there’s a market. At the beginning it might be something as simple as parents brainstorming a list of local restaurants and businesses where staff speak Mandarin. We found a hair salon where one of the stylists spoke Mandarin and now much of our 4th grade get their hair cut there. She’s learned to only speak Chinese with the kids (though parents get to give input in English.)
  • Potential parents roundtable: Publicize this far and wide. This is a chance for families with kids in the MI program answer questions from parents considering signing up for MI. This will help you get a strong turn out for next year. Do it at the beginning of the enrollment season in your school district.
  • Taking your kids to China – parent suggestions and tips. If no one in your school has yet gone to China, you can reach out to local Chinese adoption groups. Most lead trips back to China for families who have adopted children from China and can offer advice (many are probably also parents in your school.)

Other possible events for your parent group:

  • Find a local Chinese bookstore and see if they will hold a book sale at your school, with books appropriate for your students. Tell them whether you use traditional or simplified characters and let them chose books that might work. Parents can also meet to share and swap videos and CDs they got in Mandarin.
  • At the end of your first year, find a local Chinese restaurant and hold a banquet to celebrate how far your children and your program has come. Have families underwrite the cost of dinner for the teachers and the principal and let the kids write short speeches saying what they learned. Pat yourselves on the back!

Back at school, we’ve found that it’s easiest if each classroom or each grade has its own email list. Again, this is where you can turn if it’s 7:30 pm and you can’t figure out what the character on page 3 of the homework means, or your child isn’t sure exactly what they’re supposed to do.

In the long-term you might want to consider creating a non-profit, so you can fund raise for items your District can’t provide. That might mean more Chinese books for the school library, dictionaries for the classrooms or a class trip to China at the end of 8th grade. But you don’t have to start off as a non-profit by any means. It can happen when there’s sufficient need and energy on the part of parents. In San Francisco that took four years.

One suggestion that comes from Portland is to always have the vice president of the group be the president-in-waiting so there’s continuity across the years. Otherwise you can spend half a year reinventing the wheel when a new board gets up to speed.

Supporting teachers

Teachers work very hard. They come in early, stay late and spend hours at night and on the weekend working on curriculum and homework. Especially if your program is new they’re having to create every moment of every day your child spends in school out of thin air. So remember that the first year can be rocky for them. Try to be respectful of their time.

Remember that many Mandarin immersion teachers feel much more comfortable speaking Mandarin than they do speaking English (and this is exactly how you want it!) This can be a problem because many busy American parents are used to jotting off a quick email when they have a question or concern for their child’s teacher. But what is a quick email to you can be a huge amount of work for a teacher who feels self-conscious about his or her written English. Imagine if someone told you to answer an email sent to you in Spanish or French or whatever language you studied in high school. It would take you a long time, and a lot of dictionary work, and you’d still be a little worried it wasn’t right, wouldn’t it?

This is why many programs ask that parents either talk face-to-face with their teacher, or go through their room parent, who can talk to the teacher face to face. Email is just too time consuming, especially if there are cultural difficulties. Then parents get mad because their teacher didn’t email back right away and everyone gets off on the wrong foot.

Here are the suggestions various programs have formulated when an issue comes up:

  • Always give your teacher the benefit of the doubt.
  • Treat him or her like the professional they are.
  • Speak to them face to face if at all possible.
  • Don’t rely on email if they’re not fully comfortable in English. When in doubt, visit or call.
  • If you must rely on email, make it a simple yes or no question if possible.
  • If you can’t get to school and calling doesn’t work, ask your room parent to talk to them face to face.
  • Don’t go over their heads to the principal unless you’ve really tried all other options.

In all this, remember that your child is getting a remarkable opportunity to learn one of the crucial languages of the 21st century. It’s going to take more work on your part, and your kid’s part, but in the end it will all be worth it. So settle in for the long haul and get ready for a fascinating ride into what for many in your school will be a whole new culture and language. As they say in Mandarin, 加油 – jia you, which means Give it the gas!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amanda Copeland permalink
    May 27, 2016 4:46 pm

    I know this is an older post but I’m hoping to reach someone. When turning a parent group into a non-profit organization do they do that completly separate from the school or district they are hoping to fundraise for, or is their collaboration with the schools? In other words, are these parent non-profits groups an umbrella corporation under the already existant PTA or PTO or PTSA groups that are most likely already in place at the schools? And if not, if they are private (separate from the school or district) – who fronts the cost for forming that non-profit? Do all the parents pitch in, are did they fundraise specifically for the filing fees and such?

    • Elizabeth Weise permalink*
      May 27, 2016 5:10 pm

      It depends on whether you’re a whole school (all students Mandarin immersion) or a strand within a school. Whole schools often work together with the PTA, but you usually don’t need them because the PTA is all about the school.
      In a strand school, it’s got to be separate from the PTA because otherwise the PTA usually has a hard time supporting one program at the expense of others, especially if those don’t have as many engaged parents.
      Also think about the K-12 progression. It’s not just a grade school, it’s also middle and high school. So it’s useful to have an overarching group that will support all three schools in the end. That way you can speak with one voice to the school district.
      Usually you get a group of parents together who launch it just as a group and then when it gets big enough you do the fund raising to become a non profit. That can take several years.

      • Amanda Copeland permalink
        May 27, 2016 8:00 pm

        Thank you! We are a strand. So yes, we need our own group. Which is already kind of formed. We just need to be more organized.

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