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How Fremont, Calif. got its Mandarin immersion program

June 26, 2020

Fremont, California is a northern suburb of San Jose with a population of about 240,000, many of whom work in Silicon Valley. The city is 57% Asian.

All of which made it a natural for a Mandarin immersion program in its public schools. In 2008 a group of extremely determined parents made that happen.

Today there are over 400 students in the program with two additional Kindergarten classes being added next year. All due to active parents and a strong parent group — The Chinese Immersion Parents Council of Fremont — that works for the program all through the entire K -12 progression, at the elementary, middle and high school level.

It is so popular that for the for the past few years the wait list for spaces in Kindergarten has been over 50 families, said parent Jeff Bowen.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the MI program in Fremont Unified had 14 classes. There were two each for grades kindergarten through sixth grade at Azevada Elementary School.

Additionally, there are two seventh and one eighth grade class at Hopkins Jr. High School. And the first cohort of students, 17 strong, just finished their freshman year at Mission San Jose High School.

According to survey by the parent group, 73% of the families speak English, 15% speak Mandarin, and 9% speak Cantonese as primary languages at home.

A second grade Mandarin immersion class at
Azevada Elementary School in Fremont, California in 2016.

The program is still growing. On Wednesday May 20th 2020, the Council received a vote from the Fremont Unified School District Board that the Mandarin program  could add two additional classes for the 2020-21 school year.

It took a tremendous amount of work on the part of dedicated parents. Here’s a history from the Chinese Immersion Parents Council of Fremont:

When I think back to the beginning before the school board passed the immersion school resolution, I remember how hopeful we were that we could get the program off the ground. I don’t think people know the struggle it was to get the program passed by the school board.

Wei-Lin Tong and her father Dr. Wang worked for two and a half years to get the CIP in front of the school board. Jeff Bowen played a role and stood before the board to argue in favor of the program as well. There were many people at the school board meeting who were against the immersion program citing that the district couldn’t afford the program in the midst of the economic downturn and teacher layoffs.

The board reluctantly put the CIP resolution to vote and the resolution barely passed in June 2010 but with numerous, numerous stipulations. The school board gave us 9 days to recruit 30 students for the kindergarten class, in addition we had to fund the entire start-up cost independently. If we did not meet the conditions, the kinder class would be canceled and then we would have had to start the resolution process again.

Together with Wei-Lin and her parents, we tried everything to get the word out. It was like working at a start-up in a garage. Instead, we met at Asian Pearl restaurant to work out our strategy and it was there that we came up with CIPCF and talked about the direction that we wanted the council to take. It was first suggested that we name the council Fremont Unified Parents’ Council, but we later decided that the acronym, FUCP was too close to a derogatory word.

Jeff and I took the lead in setting up the blog and burned the late night oil creating a business plan and the blog. We worked with Wei-Lin and Dr. Wang on the content. Dr. Wang must have sent us 15 articles a day on the benefits of Chinese immersion to post on the blog. Within a day, Jeff and I got the blog up and running.

As there were only five of us, we knew that we needed to appear legitimate to build CIP. So, we created a logo. Dr. Wang faxed me a sketch of his vision for the logo and I used Powerpoint to create what is now our CIPCF logo. While we worked on going viral, Wei-Lin and her parents got us coverage in the newspapers and worked tirelessly to get the funding. Big contributors were CBC and Dr. Albert Wang. We worked with principal Carole Diamond and the school district to get flyers in the registration packages and organized the first informational meeting. The turnout was incredible; over 100 people attended the meeting. We even had an informal meeting at Fremont Public Library and skyped in the producers of Speaking in Tongues to participate.

In July of 2010, less than a month since passing of the resolution, we had to report back to the school board with our current status. The Board was shocked – as were we – that we had collected enough applications to fill a kindergarten class in the fall.

There were so many missed opportunities by the school board to get the Chinese Immersion Program started earlier. We missed out on a million dollar Federal grant that would have paved the way for us so that we wouldn’t have to worry about fundraising. A Chinese Immersion program in Palo Alto was fortunate enough to be granted the money.

It is truly short of a miracle that we established the Chinese Immersion Program in 9 days, which was two years in the making. Our hope is that the council continues to keep fundraising and outreach a priority to recruit new students. It should be a main focus for CIPCF, as we initially intended when we were sitting at the dinner table with Wei-Lin and her parents.

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