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Mandarin immersion thriving in Los Angeles

March 6, 2013
Marina Del Ray middle school in Los Angeles

Marina Del Ray middle school in Los Angeles

[Parents camped out in Venice to get in this school last week.]

By Elizabeth Weise

Frank and Mindy Han live in the city of Calabasas, in the hills west of the San Fernando Valley. They moved there specifically for the public schools, which are uniformly rated as excellent. They wanted a high-quality education for their three children and chose the town specifically because it was in the Las Virgenes Unified School District.

Yet this is Frank’s morning routine:

The morning sun was just breaking the horizon in the far distance, but it was still dark and cold inside our house. It was time to lift my daughter out of her comfortable bed, still asleep, and place her gently in our car, which was carefully prepared the night before. Morning snacks for the one-hour drive to her school. Check. Lap table, pencils, crayons so she can finish her homework in the car. Check. Clothes, socks, shoes, jacket. Check. Backpack with snacks, lunch, and water bottle. Check. Porta potty for when it’s time. Check.

What could make an education-minded family in a green and lovely suburb brave an hour of Los Angeles rush hour traffic for two hours a day to send their daughter to a school that five years ago was dying and the Los Angeles Unified School District wanted to close?

Mandarin.

Han didn’t even know LAUSD had Mandarin immersion until a week before school began in August of 2012. Despite the distance and the investment they’d made by moving to Calabasas, he and his wife were drawn to the possibility of their three children learning Mandarin beginning in Kindergarten.

Both second-generation American-born Chinese, their parents went to great lengths to make sure they were fluent in Mandarin language. Now the Han’s struggle to give their own children the same opportunity. “We speak Chinese at home, we hire Chinese-speaking nannies, and those things all help, but to keep up with fluency, especially learning to read and write, an immersion environment at school is the only real alternative, short of moving to Asia,” said Mindy.

After they learned about Broadway they considered waiting a year to enroll their oldest daughter as 2012-2013 already had a long and growing wait list. Then the weekend before school started the school’s principal, Susan Wang, called to tell them there was an opening in the Kindergarten class and asking if they wanted it.

They jumped at the chance.

It meant “up-ending our lives by foregoing enrollment in our walking-distance, top-rated, well-funded, Las Virgenes district elementary school,” but they haven’t regretted it, he says. They’re not the only ones. Broadway has other families who every morning launch themselves into the grueling Los Angeles rush hour commute, coming in from as far as Porter Ranch (over 30 miles away), Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Hollywood among many other far-away places.

Han can’t say enough good things about the school, the Mandarin immersion program and especially Principal Wang. She’s “leading the charge of seeing this program succeed.”

The school they brought their daughter to on August 15, 2012 is part of a transformation that’s happening at dozens of schools across the nation as Mandarin immersion programs bring new families to under-enrolled schools.

Birth of a new program

Today Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles is full to the bursting. There are five Kindergarten classes, five first grades and three second grades. Test scores have risen dramatically. In fact, the school has become so popular that it’s moving to a new building next year to accommodate the growth. Principal Susan Wang, whose vision of a Mandarin school made all this possible, is moving with it, together with the school’s Mandarin immersion teachers.

It’s all a huge turnaround for a school, housed in a beautiful 1926 building in the beach town of Venice, Calif., that had seen its student population slowly shrinking for decades. In the 1980s and 90s the neighborhood that surrounded it had succumbed to decay and in some areas gang violence. It was home to what some publications called “a Westside wasteland of burned-out hippies and off-the-grid artists.” Families moved away and those that were left tried to send their children to other schools.

“Eighteen years ago there were 17 people shot dead and 58 gun shot injuries, all gang related” in the neighborhood, says Wang. When she arrived in the 2008-2009 school year students at Broadway barely filled seven classrooms, one for each grade from Kindergarten to sixth.

“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 Wang.

The neighborhood began to turn around about 15 years ago, becoming much safer and more peaceful. Today it is very diverse, with some of the poorest and also some of the wealthiest households in LA. But the changes didn’t bring students to the school. Broadway Elementary continued to shrink and the Los Angeles Unified School District told Wang that it planned to close the school or merge it with another.

She chose to fight to save it. The Broadway community had worked tremendously hard to improve the school and she believed in her students. “We raised our API by 107 points!” she says proudly of her first years there.  To attract new families the Taiwanese-born, Mandarin-speaking Wang tried adding Mandarin classes for students, called FLES, for ‘foreign language in elementary school’ among educators.  She recognized that “nowadays you’ve got to have something to sell your instruction,” she said. Working with the Confucius Institute at UCLA she made Mandarin classes available for all students. The school hung a big banner out saying it offered Mandarin. “But nobody came here because of that,” she says.

Instead, something else happened, something that surprised her. Through her door came a steady stream of parents who told her “I don’t want FLES, I want immersion. If you have it, I’ll come.”

Wang asked them to put the word out on local parent email lists to see how much interest there was in the wider community. A lot, it turned out. In 2009 she was able to go to the District and say ‘I’ve got 40 kids who want Mandarin Immersion 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 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. So the District gave her the go-ahead.

She began with two Mandarin immersion Kindergartens in 2010-2011, both of which filled. The program was so overwhelmingly popular that in 2011-2012 the Kindergarten expanded to four Mandarin classes of 24 students each. For the first time in memory the school had a waiting list.

The school’s Academic Performance Index scores, already on the way up, have since risen dramatically. The API is California’s system for measuring school performance and improvement. In 2009, Broadway’s API score was 748. In 2010 it went up to 855 and in 2011 to 869. In 2012 it reached 885, well above the coveted 800-mark that is the goal of all California public schools.

For the first time the school has a parent organization, “Friends of Broadway,” a parent-run, non-profit organization that raises money to support Broadway Elementary school instruction and student activities. This year it raised thousands of dollars to support school programs. That’s helpful as getting the money to fully equip four new classrooms with the necessary materials as the programs grows each year is difficult.

Parents in the Mandarin immersion program also launched a non-profit, DragonSprouts, to support the program as it grows. You can read more about their program at http://www.broadwayelementary.org/dragonsprouts.

The English language program at Broadway has also grown. In 2011-2012 there were only 13 students in the English Kindergarten. For the 2012-2013 school year “we have a full class of 24,” said Wang.

Growing Pains

In Los Angeles, as in many large, urban school districts, middle and upper middle class families have tended to look for either magnet or immersion programs if they consider the public schools at all, though that’s beginning to change.[1] Wang knows that were it not for Mandarin, many families “would not have sent their kids to Broadway, or LAUSD.” That’s a loss for the community, the schools and the city.

The Mandarin program integrated the school, says one school parent. When parents toured the school before the Mandarin program arrived “they looked on the playground and they saw shades of brown, they didn’t want to go here.” The Mandarin program helped overcome those prejudices. Buzz in the community has been “great,” says Broadway mom Jean Hsi. A large percentage of the first wave of incoming families were American-born Chinese, often second-generation Mandarin speakers. That’s been 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 have been much more committed to having their children learn to read, write and speak Mandarin in school, she says. These families may speak Mandarin. If they don’t, they ” learned some in Saturday school and then the grandparents speak it. Or they’re hiring Chinese-speaking nannies,” she says. They’re working hard to retain the language for their kids and see the immersion program as a great opportunity to do so.”

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

Han is grateful for the work of those pioneer families who helped pave the way for his daughter and took a chance on an unknown school and a new program in its first two years. Now in its third year, “the Broadway Mandarin Immersion Program has largely settled into a routine,” he says. “As is often the case, the pioneering class, now second graders, were the ones blazing the trail, wading into the unknown, trying and failing, trying and succeeding, setting the stage for classes to come and hopefully improve upon the program. And for that, this year’s Kindergarten class is grateful and indebted to these pioneers.”

He’s seeing his daughter “blossom under the guidance of Principal Wang and the tutelage of both the English and Mandarin teachers, who together have crafted a wonderful and academically challenging program to mold our children into better citizens of the world.”

Immersion popular in LA

Los Angles Unified is the second largest school district in the country and has implemented a broad policy of creating immersion schools, both to serve the needs of English language learners and the desires of second and third generations immigrants who want to give their children access to their heritage language and to draw in families who might otherwise leave the public schools for private or the suburbs. LAUSD has 43 language immersion schools in 42[2] schools (there’s one joint Spanish/Korean program at Wilton Place School):

  • 30 Spanish
  • 9 Korean
  • 3 Mandarin

The oldest Mandarin immersion program in Los Angeles, and the oldest in Southern California, is at City Terrace Elementary School in East Los Angeles. The school’s Mandarin program launched in 2007-2008 with one Kindergarten class. Today it has reached fifth grade and next year the first graduating class will move on to El Sereno Middle School, where District officials are planning a Mandarin immersion class. El Sereno also has an International Baccalaureate Program, as well as a Math Science and Technology Magnet program and a program for highly gifted students.

City Terrace’s Mandarin program is a strand within the school, with one class per grade and another “two or three English language classes per grade” depending on the year, says Principal Elaine Fujiu.

Their program begins using traditional characters and switched to simplified in fourth grade, Fujiu said.

The principal at the time “thought it would be an advantage to our students to learn Mandarin, so he and one of our teachers just started the program,” says Fujiu.

The school’s population is 90% Hispanic. The school is 100% Title one students, meaning students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Most of the parents in the Mandarin program come from the surrounding community and the students in the program are mainly Hispanic with a smattering of African-American, Korean and other Asian. There are a few Chinese families. Those that come want their children to know how to read and write. “Their kids can speak ‘playground Chinese’ but they want the academic language,” Fujiu said. The parents have been very supportive and involved in the school.

The program has been very successful academically, said Fujiu. In the Mandarin program 80% of students are proficient in reading and math, in English “and we have a lot of perfect scores.”

LA’s was Elementary School in Chinatown also has a Mandarin immersion program. The school as built in 1882, making it the second oldest continuously operating school in Los Angeles. Principal Cheuk Choi helped launched a Mandarin immersion program in the school’s Kindergarten in 2011-2012 in conjunction with UCLA’s Confucius Institute.

Mandarin at Broadway

Wang is a big fan of having at least 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—though with the incredible success of the program she’s now got two Mandarin and two English teachers per grade. “It makes sense to have native speakers teach in their own language and also the power of collaborating in both languages,” she says.

The District had previously had some 90%/10% Spanish immersion programs, but has moved to an entirely 50%-50%, immersion model, 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.

Broadway teaches traditional Chinese characters and uses the Better Chinese textbooks for Kindergarten then adds the Mei Zhou (美洲华语) series from first grade on. “We use both,” says Wang. The needs of immersion students are different from those of students taking Chinese as a separate class so “you can’t go page-by-page, lesson-by-lesson. You have to pick and chose, see what matches the grade school curriculum,” she said. In addition her teachers work to translate and adapt the LAUSD math, science and social studies curriculum into Mandarin.

Challenges

Wang’s biggest challenge continues to be hiring Mandarin speaking staff. While LAUSD is supportive, the District’s human resources department isn’t designed for schools that are increasing four classes a year. Like many large districts it isn’t able to offer the teachers contracts until late in the year, when a school can ‘prove’ it will have sufficient students to fill those classes the next year. With Mandarin immersion teachers worth their weight in gold these days, districts that can offer contracts early on are able to lock-in teachers long before LAUSD, and San Francisco Unified as well, can even make an offer.

Wang has had the heartbreak of finding a great line-up of teachers, only to see them sign with other Districts that can offer contracts earlier on in the year—a scenario other principals at Mandarin immersion schools can empathize with because they’ve been there.

In addition, Mandarin immersion teaching is a high-energy, high-burnout profession, so each year a few of her teachers decide they just can’t keep up with the pace. Once a program is fully built-out and solid it’s easier—but in the initial ‘pioneer’ years the difficulties are enormous. In six years Wang will need to hire 24 teachers in one of the most sought-after and difficult-to-find teaching specialties. She sighs at the thought, but then brightens when she begins talking about the program she’s helped create.

New Problems

The new program has been so wildly successful that it has outgrown Broadway in just three years. Today the school has four Mandarin immersion Kindergartens a year “and could fill six if we had the space,” says Wang. Because of that, LAUSD announced in the fall of 2013 that in the 2013-2014 school year the Mandarin program at Broadway will move to Marina Del Rey middle school, three miles away. The new school will become a K-8 Mandarin immersion community school with an English-language strand in middle school that will also offer Mandarin classes.

Such transitions aren’t always smooth. When it was originally announced that the program would move, Wang was to go with it. Then in January LA Unified told parents that Wang would oversee the new Mandarin school while at the same time staying at Broadway to oversee three new programs there: a new Spanish immersion  program, an arts-infused curriculum, and an hour-a-day Spanish language program for the English program. “Rather than dedicating her time to the sole development of our nascent MI program at Marina Del Rey, she would have been split between four programs and two locations,” is how one parent email put it.

An outpouring of community anger at the proposal, which parents felt would have cut the knees off the program just as it faced its largest challenge yet, caused the District to re-think its plan and as of February Wang once again was slated to lead the Mandarin program’s over 300 students to their new school.

Currently Broadway has 230 students in its Mandarin program. When it’s fully built-out in 2015-2016 the K-5 portion will have 575 students, a “nice-sized” school by LAUSD standards, says Wang. When they get to the new school “we’ll rename ourselves,” says Wang. “The new name will come from the parent community, students and teachers.”

The move to a new, larger building will bring the school community “new challenges to face, new bumps in the road to manage, but also new opportunities to take advantage of,” says dad Han. Whatever the new name of our program will be, we are honored and grateful to be participants, contributors and most of all, beneficiaries of it, and are looking forward to seeing our other two children follow in our oldest daughter’s footsteps.”

================

[1] If you want to read about what it feels like on the ground, Sandra Tsing Loh tells a great story. She’s got a book out, Mother on Fire, and here’s a piece from The Atlantic that many of us recognize parts of our own schools in The Atlantic, “Tales out of School: How a pushy, Type A mother stopped reading Jonathan Kozol and learned to love the public schools.” March 2008.  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/tales-out-of-school/306645/

[2] Educational Service Center, Draft 2012-2013 Dual Language Program Directory http://bit.ly/UwNd51

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