Texas, where everything is big, even the Mandarin immersion schools
By Elizabeth Weise
To the rest of the country this might seem like an odd statement, but here goes. If you were going to design the best public Mandarin immersion school you possibly could, it would probably look a lot like the one that launched in September of 2012—in Houston, Texas.
Yes, Houston. Really. When the Houston Independent School District decided to create a Mandarin immersion school it didn’t do as many districts do:
- Houston didn’t make Mandarin a single strand in a larger school, making it impossible for the school’s culture to focus on Chinese.
- Houston didn’t put just one classroom per grade in, which makes for tiny classes in the upper grades as students move, often requiring a difficult to teach fourth/fifth split grade class.
- Houston didn’t place it as one small strand in a larger low performing school to bring in active parents, launching a school with a host of tensions between the strands over funding and emphasis.
- Houston didn’t make the school K – 5 and then jump to a middle school where the Mandarin students would be a tiny proportion of students in a much larger school.
- Houston didn’t start from scratch, expecting its newly-hired teachers to somehow create a program out of whole cloth as they also taught full-time, burning them out in the process.
Instead, Houston did it Texas-sized.
In August of 2012, the Houston Unified School District opened a 100% Mandarin immersion school, its first. It began with Kindergarten, first and second grade. In its first year there were 250 students and the school will add a grade a year until it reaches eighth grade in 2018-2019. When it is fully built out it will be home to 950 students. This year’s Kindergarten had four classes totaling 88 students, an extremely lucky number in Chinese –and clearly just as lucky for the families who got in on the ground floor as well.
The school has been wildly successful, especially for a new, untried program in a language that’s never been taught in a Houston elementary school before. “It’s been phenomenal.” Being in a whole-school environment rather than one strand in a larger school has allowed him to focus on Chinese “rather than this is the neat little quirk we can offer for 25 to 50 kids,” says principal Bryan Bordelon, 30.
It’s worked. “We currently have more people on the wait list for our entire school than we have total enrolled students.”
In fact pretty much the only thing Houston did that seems even a little off is the ungainly name they saddled the school with. It’s officially the Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School. Even its acronym, MCLIMS, doesn’t really roll off the tongue.
As to why Chinese in Texas, Bordelon says that while Texas may seem a more likely home for Spanish immersion, Houston is actually an extremely international city. It has a very large business population that works with Asia, so much so that there is a Chinese consul in the city. With so many international oil and energy companies headquartered there, businesses are clamoring for multilingual workers. The school is already talking to large corporations about support for the program.
Keeping the middle class in public schools
One of the really wonderful outcomes of the way they created the Mandarin immersion school is that it’s been a true magnet for a large number of families who otherwise would have sent their children to private schools or moved to the suburbs. From the numbers, a high percentage of those families were white and Asian, the type of families that all too often leave the public schools. While Houston itself is about 25% non-Hispanic white, white students make up just 11% of the school district. Asians are overrepresented at the school, Houston’s population is 6% Asian as of the 2012 census.
As multiple other schools nationwide have found, Mandarin immersion is a powerful carrot to keep families in the public school system. In fact the school sits across the street from two private schools, an Episcopal high school and the Post Oak School, both of which cost in the $30,000 a year range.
But instead parents are knocking down the door to get into Mandarin immersion. The waiting list is long and getting longer,” said parent James Troutman. “Which is like ‘Hello, Houston? You need another school!”
Far from creating a segregated school that was primarily white and Asian, as many districts fear will happen, the Mandarin school is extremely mixed. The student body is made up of 25% Asian students, 25% African-American students, 25% white students and 25% Hispanic students. “We pull from 63 zip codes. We truly represent the city,” Bordelon said.
What the school doesn’t have is many Mandarin speakers, just 5% of the incoming students speak Mandarin at home. For now the program is one-way.
Houston is a zoned school district, meaning students are assigned to schools in their local zone. But the Chinese school is not zoned so families must apply to get in, no one is automatically assigned there. That makes for a “very willing parent body,” says Bordelon. “They made this choice, no one’s zoned to us—everyone has to apply.”
The families who come are engaged and active in the extreme. The school’s newly-created Parent-Teacher Organization hit the ground running. It held a large fundraiser in the spring and ended the year with $16,000 in the bank, pretty impressive for a first year organization.
The one complex part of the endeavor has been the placement of the school. It took over the building of an existing but very poorly-enrolled school called Gordon Elementary. Gordon was an overflow school. When there were too many students from a nearby zone to go to their zoned school, they were sent to Gordon.
Now the English program that was at Gordon is being phased out and for the 2013-2014 school year there are fewer than 50 students from it who will finish out fifth grade there, said Bordelon. While they’re there “we’re working hard to make sure that it isn’t two separate campuses.” Those students are able to take Chinese lessons once a day so they, too, are part of the broader Chinese focus of the school.
To create its first Mandarin immersion program Houston chose to join the Flagship–Chinese Acquisition Pipeline consortium. That’s the closest thing there is to “Mandarin immersion in a box.” Anchored by the Utah State Department of Education, home to 26 Mandarin immersion schools, F-CAP includes six state departments of education and individual school districts in 18 other states. It’s a bit like the International Baccalaureate program in that it provides member schools with a roadmap and instructions on how to set up and run a program. F-CAP offers a national model for a K-12 Chinese immersion curriculum, textbooks, support and a yearly teacher and staff training summit in Utah each summer.
Joining the consortium “has been a phenomenal connection for us,” said Bordelon. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, the professional development opportunities for our teachers is amazing.”
Remarkably, Bordelon was able to hire almost all the teachers he needed from within the Houston school system. The sprawling and enormous district includes 273 schools and 11,000 teachers. It turned out that there were a surprising number who spoke Mandarin fluently. Bordelon had to hire six Chinese teachers this year and had 65 applicants. “I had one teacher who’s trilingual. She was born in China, raised in Costa Rica and then spent 17 years teaching in a Spanish bilingual school.”
Moving into high school should be easy. Bordelon said he’s already had multiple Houston high school principals approach him about how they can get ready to attract his graduating eight graders come 2019.
The school was also lucky with its first principal. Bordelon’s father worked for an oil company and he spent much of his childhood overseas, in Indonesia, Qatar and Venezuela. He then studied Mandarin at the University of Texas, when ton to attend a summer immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont and lived in China for a year.
Getting the program up and running is “one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said. “I can’t lie and say it wasn’t hard work. They announced the school in December of 2011. They started taking applications in January of 2012 and there was literally nothing. I was named to the position in February 2012 and basically told ‘Create a Mandarin immersion school. Go!”
He proved to be so good at his job that HISD is moving him up to a new position, launching a college readiness program across the district. They’re in the process of hiring a new principal but Bordelon doesn’t think that will be a problem “because we’re off to such a strong start.”
How it got started
Houston is also extraordinary in how it got its Mandarin program. In most schools parents are the ones who want Chinese immersion and they spend years trying to convince their school district that it’s a good idea. Often the most committed parents give up when their children have to enter Kindergarten or first grade and become too old to join whatever program eventually gets created. That leaves the core group constantly working to attract new members even as it while the school district ponders the idea.
In Houston things went very differently. The biggest champion has been the school board itself, whereas in many districts it’s the major stumbling block. Board member Harvin Moore had focused on the idea since taking two education-related trips to China. He’s also visited a Mandarin immersion program in San Diego, where Houston Superintendent Terry Grier used to work. “Much of the push to create an immersion school was based on those two individuals,” Bordelon said.
What’s the future hold?
Clearly Houston’s model only works in a large school district with enough schools that turning one into a full-immersion program leaves enough space in English programs. A small school district with just a handful of elementary schools would be hard pressed to make a case for creating an all-immersion school simply because it would restrict family choices far too much. But in a large district like Houston, which has 276 schools, turning one or more all-immersion creates rather than restricts choices.
The Houston Independent School District also has two Spanish immersion schools as well as multiple Spanish bilingual programs. But beyond those three it contains no other immersion schools. The Mandarin program is on the west side of town and it has proven so popular that there is talk of opening another Chinese immersion school on the west side. But others have suggested opening another immersion school in another language.
When another immersion school will open, and what language it will teach, remains to be seen. But clearly Houston is a school district that has put itself on the map by creating a robust, wildly popular and high-performing Chinese immersion program with none of the baggage that causes so many programs to struggle. Other large urban school district would do well to learn from their example.