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Mandarin immersion in Minnetonka, Minnesota

December 15, 2012

logoMandarin in Minnetonka

By Elizabeth Weise

Minnetonka, Minnesota is an excellent example of how a school district used language immersion to fill seats that otherwise would have been empty, in a state where every student has the right to apply to any public school. In addition students in the district’s immersion programs show higher test scores overall than students in general English classes.

In 2002 population projections showed Minnetonka Public Schools losing 1,300 students over the next ten years. The School Board and district staff instead set out to make Minnetonka a magnet for families outside the district. Multiple programs were discussed. One was language immersion.

In 2007 Minnetonka, eight miles west of Minneapolis launched four Spanish and two Mandarin immersion programs in its six elementary schools – placing a language immersion option in every elementary school in the District.

The gamble paid of handsomely for both the district and families. In 2012-2013 the District had 9,432 students and Minnetonka has the highest percentage growth of any school district in Minnesota. One-quarter of its seats are filled through the open enrollment process. About 50% of students in the district are in either Spanish or Mandarin immersion, half of each elementary school. Families who enroll their children in kindergarten are asked to make at least a six-year commitment to the immersion program and with the launch of its middle school immersion program this year they look to stay on through high school.

Minnetonka’s students are already extremely high performing. Ninety-nine percent graduate from high school, 93% are college bound and 80% attend a four-year college. But language immersion offered that ‘something extra’ that has drawn families in from 41 other school districts.

And at no threat to their English or test scores, says Lee Drolet, principal of Excelsior Elementary, one of the district’s two Mandarin immersion schools. The other is Scenic Heights Elementary. Not only does the Mandarin immersion program offer language proficiency at a young age, but the District is finding students “show higher achievement in our immersion programs than our other students,” she says.

The district itself has a relatively wealthy population. Just 7% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. It spent $9,680 per pupil in 2009-2010, with additional support from multiple parent groups that support schools and the district. The per-student spending level still puts it below the national average of $10,615 in 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. States that spent the most per pupil were New York ($18,618), New Jersey ($16,841), Alaska ($15,783), Vermont ($15,274) and Wyoming ($15,169).

For families who don’t choose the immersion programs there are afterschool language programs in Spanish and Mandarin are also available in elementary school.

First three years are 100% Chinese

Because very few of the students in the program speak Mandarin, the Minnetonka program is one-way immersion program, focusing on the needs of English-speaking students who are learning Mandarin. Based on its demographics, Minnetonka chose to make its Mandarin immersion program 100% immersion for Kindergarten through second grade. The only classes students in the first three years have in English are music and art.

Only in third grade do students begin in English, with one 50 minute class a day in English language arts. The class is taught by a native English speaking teacher.

How, a principal from San Francisco asked at the recent Chinese Language Education Forum in Redwood City, Calif., do the students learn to read in English?

Almost all come into the program already reading in first grade, said Drolet. It’s expected that they’ll learn English reading at home, but if a student isn’t making progress they get intervention either in the winter of second grade or in third grade. The district presumes strong parental support. “We tell parents to read to their children in English 30 minutes a day,” she said.

In third grade, immersion students get 60 minutes of English instruction a day and in fourth and fifth grades it increases to 70 minutes. The district feels the high concentration of Mandarin time is necessary to really cement the language. And because students are getting the same subjects and material as the English and Spanish language counter parts, there’s no net loss of instruction time, she points out.

Because so little of the school day is offered in English, “English time is really intense, I tell our teachers they can’t waste a second of it,” says Drolet.

The District uses the Better Chinese textbooks for Kindergarten and first grade, and then Singapore’s Chinese Language for Primary Schools for second through fifth, with the addition of reading supplementation with leveled readers.

“We have resource books on particular themes, so students can work in guided reading groups. They work in differentiated groups based on their level,” she said.

One thing teachers have really found surprising is “how wonderful technology has been to support language learning. Interactive white boards have been a big help,” in teaching Mandarin, said Drolet.

Middle School

The district has two middle schools, one of the town’s east side and one on the west. Both gained a Mandarin immersion sixth grade this year as the first class of Mandarin immersion sixth graders arrived.

The middle school program was well-planned years in advance. The 2012-2013 school year has been the first that there’s been Mandarin immersion in middle school, with two classes entering sixth grade. The district spent two years putting together the model, said Dymit. “There are very few school sin the entire country that continue immersion into the middle school year, so there were not a lot of middle schools to work with,” he said. Thankfully Portland, Oregon’s Hosford Middle school has “been wonderful” and helpful, he said.

Although the first middle school students matriculated into sixth grade only in 2012-2013, the district has already begun discussing how immersion students will impact its high schools and how the high school program should be structured.

Middle school students take six classes per day:

  • English language arts,
  • Math,
  • Science,
  • Mandarin language arts,
  • Social studies
  • Elective

Mandarin language arts and social studies are offered in Mandarin. Social studies was chosen as a Mandarin language course because it was the only middle school subject that wasn’t offered at multiple difficulty levels, said Minnetonka Middle School East principal Pete Dymit, principal of Minnetonka Middle School East.

Minnetonka offers highly differentiated courses to meet the needs of students working at different levels. In middle school there are three levels of math, two of science and two of language arts at each grade level.  In addition the district offers a Gifted and Talented Education program that requires a tested IQ of 145 or over to enroll.

“We could have offered math in Mandarin, but we couldn’t offer three levels of math in Mandarin,” Dymit said. “Our parents come to Minnetonka because they want a highly differentiated, highly rigorous curriculum that meets where their child is,” he said. “If our parents had to decide between accelerated math and Mandarin, they’d say they weren’t willing to give up the right math class,” he said.

The district was able to offer more instructional minutes in Mandarin for middle school students by taking the social studies class period and adding what English program students would have had as student advisory homeroom class, and by “shaving some time off the minutes the get to go from class to class,” said Dymit. That allowed the creation of an 87 minute block of time for Mandarin, he said.

The rest of the school day Mandarin students are mixed in with students from the general education and Spanish immersion tracks.

“Our model is balance between giving them content time without having them in immersion so much that they become disgruntled because they feel they’re giving up too much to stay in the program,” he added.

High School

            The focus in the middle school Mandarin language arts is getting students ready to have the proficiency to pass the Advanced Placement language program at the end of ninth grade. Here’s how their high school time will likely look when it begins in  2015-2016:

  • The summer after eight grade students will be eligible to take part in a summer abroad program in either China or Taiwan.
  • In ninth grade they will take AP Chinese, culminating in taking the AP Mandarin Language and Culture test.
  • In tenth grade they will take Honors Chinese literature, humanities and cultural studies in Mandarin.
  • In eleventh grade they will take Honors language cultural exploration with a spring semester study abroad.
  • In twelfth grade they will take Honors language Superior Fluency, bringing them to a level that would let them pass the HSK Mandarin test at the “Advanced with Honors” level.

In addition, high school seniors may also have the option of taking either a core content or elective course in Mandarin.

On the ACTFL scale (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale) students will begin tenth grade at the ACTFL Intermediate-High level and graduate having achieved the Advanced-High level with “a proficiency level that is very close to that of a native speaker,” according to the a report to the Minnetonka School Board presented on May 17, 2012.

Teacher support and training key

Staffing the program is a key focus of the districts and the schools work hard to insure that their highly-trained teaching staff stay in their positions. To that end they are offered ample training and professional support, said Drolet.

Each new Mandarin immersion teacher gets a one-on-one Mentor teacher for his or her first year. During their first three years teaching in the program they also get monthly teaching support, including after-school classes to learn content and instructional methods.

The Chinese teachers in the district work very much as a department, with monthly meeting on topics of interest to faculty offered. “We very much have a team approach,” said Drolet.

Because the curriculum taught in the district wasn’t available in Mandarin, teachers had to translate it into Chinese. The district now makes that available for sale to other districts beginning such programs.

Immersion Collaboration

Minnetonka is also part of the Minnesota Mandarin Immersion Collaborative, an association of four Minnesota K-12 Mandarin immersion program schools and the University of Minnesota. Programs in the collaborative include:

  • Hopkins Public Schools:
    • Eisenhower Elementary XinXing Academy,
  • Minnetonka Public Schools:
    • Scenic Heights Elementary Mandarin Immersion Program
    • Excelsior Elementary Mandarin Immersion Programs
  • St. Cloud Public Schools:
    • Madison Elementary Guang Ming Academy,

The MMIC Leadership Team consists of:

  • Molly Wieland, Project Director, Hopkins Public Schools
  • Tara Fortune, Immersion Projects Coordinator, CARLA, University of Minnesota
  • Joan Brzezinski, Director, Confucius Institute, University of Minnesota
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