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Los Angeles cuts wildly popular Mandarin program by half

May 26, 2015


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[I added in a tidbit at the end: LAUSD has had a 20% decline in enrollment in the past 8 years and is looking to better market itself…]

The Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to cut the highly successful Mandarin immersion program at Broadway Elementary from four classes of incoming Kindergartners to two, thus halving the side of a program that revitalized a school and brought hundreds of families into the public school system that might otherwise have gone elsewhere.

Why? Because, in the words of Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of public schools for Los Angeles, it must be “right-sized” in order to also accommodate at Spanish immersion program that was opened at Broadway last year and the school’s original English program.

The Mandarin program had been slated to move to the soon to-be-rebuilt Mark Twain middle school. There it  would have become a K – 8 school much like the hugely popular Houston Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School in Texas,

However pushback from families at the middle school (which had suffered from decreasing enrollment) combined with neighbors who said it would bring increased traffic and pedestrians, caused LAUSD to back off that.

In a letter appended below, Cortines also noted that the Mandarin immersion program had not attracted sufficient Mandarin speakers and was composed mainly of English-speaking students, making it a one-way rather than two-way immersion program.

The differences between one- and two-way (i.e. dual language and foreign language) are huge politically. Dual language immersion, i.e. two-way, serves English Language Learners. There’s a lot of federal money for that and it also helps the district comply with the Lau Decision So there’s a lot of incentive for the district to back two-way programs.

One-way programs, on the other hand, are simply fluff as far as many urban districts are concerned. They serve English-speaking students who mainly come from middle class families and thus don’t fulfill any of the needs of the District. I hate to be harsh, but I haven’t seen many urban districts (beyond Houston, they’re a real outlier) who don’t behave this way.

I’ve yet to hear of a school district that had sufficient Mandarin-speaking English language learners to fill such a program. It works with Cantonese in San Francisco and Sacramento but I do not know of any programs that work for Mandarin speakers. (if you know of any, please get in touch.)

Broadway is also supposed to support a Spanish immersion program as well as a mainstream English program. There simply isn’t enough room for all three, given the popularity of the Mandarin program, which has been enrolling four Kinder classes a year and could easily enroll six if it had the space.

Cortines said he would encourage the development of dual and foreign language programs at school sites that had space and where there was need and desire for them.

As I’ve written in my book, A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, school districts’ have their own reasons for wanting immersion programs, reasons that are often very different from the families whose children fill them.

In this case, an amazing principal, Susan Wang, launched the program to save her school, which was severely under enrolled. It worked all too well. Families flocked to the school from across Los Angeles and the school filled to bursting.

But instead of embracing the program and giving it room to grow and flourish, the District has seemed to do everything it could to crush it. This is where knowing District motivations is important. For big urban districts, the motivation for immersion is often to fill empty classrooms, create racial and socio-economic diversity in schools that often had few White or Asian students  and fulfill their Lao Decision requirements to educate non English speaking students in their native languages.

In Broadway’s case, the fact that it could easily have filled the whole school, and in fact a much larger school, didn’t matter because the families that were drawn to the program were in general White and Asian and English-speaking. That’s not the kind of school the District wanted to create, so it didn’t.

There are some districts that seem willing to embrace Mandarin immersion and the students it tends to attract (Houston! Minnesota!) but others which do their level best to break them up (Portland, San Francisco (at times)) I wish it weren’t the case but it is.

I’m so sorry for the Broadway program, which is fantastic. It will continue on but won’t be allowed to grow as it might have. Perhaps LAUSD will open another program somewhere else. It has two others, neither of which seem to work much with each other and neither of which seem to have attracted a lot of families from outside their neighborhoods.

I guess time will tell.

Interestingly, LAUSD enrollment has dropped 20% in the last eight years and is looking at how to better market itself. See a great story about about it here. Some quotes:

“We are still in a very precarious situation,” said school board member Steve Zimmer. “How do we attract families who have increasing choices?”

At the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, members recommended a new marketing campaign to attract and keep more students. The effort could include public television segments, neighborhood door-knocking and promotions of magnet schools focusing on science or art and dual-language programs, such as Spanish, Korean and Mandarin.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2015 10:42 pm

    Thank you for clarifying what happened today. Until a few months ago, I thought that language immersion programs had a bright future in the LAUSD. That changed all too quickly with the push back at Mark Twain over preserving green space.

    It’s quite a blow to go from recent promises of new facilities at Mark Twain that would have permitted a K-8 Mandarin immersion education for years to come. Now we have two language immersion programs competing for limited space on the Broadway campus. It’s not clear how either language immersion program – Spanish and Mandarin – can grow when the resources they’re allotted are so limited.

    This has been a very knee-jerk reaction that did more to appease a vocal minority over the interests of our children. I do hope there are still enough people in the LAUSD with the foresight to understand the tremendous value these language immersion programs have for the school district and for the community.

  2. May 28, 2015 12:28 pm

    Thanks for this news update and your comments. I especially appreciated your juxtaposition of LAUSD’s excuses why they’re slashing the size of a program that’s highly in demand next to their rhetoric about trying to appeal to parents in the district. I also agree with your assessment about urban districts’ attitudes towards one-way immersion.

    Sadly, this treatment of Mandarin immersion programs seems a symptom of broader themes at play in U.S. education, especially in public schools in urban districts. One might imagine such programs as a win all around, for students, families, schools, our country and the global community as a whole. So what to explain for the hostility towards these desirable programs? Let me suggest in this case it’s the same motivations that drive NYC under de Blasio to try to push out the Success Academies despite their terrific track record educating students from predominantly economically challenging situations. And, perhaps it’s what’s motivating the SFUSD Board to spend more time moving deck chairs around deciding which students go to which schools rather than adopting some of the lessons from the KIPP schools serving the same demographics with much greater success.

    Could it be that some of these educators and administrators are not prioritizing academics for their schools or students? Could it be that they have unstated goals and objectives which they think are more important?

  3. June 5, 2015 9:19 am

    I created a website for those of us who feel that recent decisions of the LAUSD will compromise a growing program by limiting incoming Kindergarten classes to 2 classrooms rather than the usual 4. Although the LAUSD has decided not to proceed with the expansion of the program at the Mark Twain campus, we weren’t expecting the outcome to be a reduction in classes for our program. There’s more to be done to ensure the Mandarin Immersion program continues to thrive and not become the victim of local politics.

  4. June 8, 2015 6:49 am

    First, I want to thank Broadway Elementary for paving the way for Dual Language Immersion in our area. I am saddened by this latest reduction in class offerings. You asked for the name of a school that is a dual language immersion 50/50 model in terms of instructional time AND student enrollment of heritage and non-heritage speakers? Walnut Elementary School in Walnut has enough heritage speakers to truly have a 50/50 model, and when determining enrollment, we adhere to these percentages. There are 2 DLI classes per grade level. There are also 2 general education classes at each grade level who receive Mandarin instruction through FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) for 45 minutes or 120 minutes (Grades K and 1) per week. Our goal was to be a global neighborhood school!

  5. June 17, 2015 12:24 pm

    If you are interested in starting a Mandarin Immersion program in Riverside County, California contact me at

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