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How a Portland-area Mandarin immersion school almost closed but was reborn with a German accent

September 16, 2021
Students in the Chinese track at the German International School in Beaverton, Oregon.

The Portland, Oregon area is a hotbed of Mandarin immersion. It’s got the storied Mandarin immersion program in the Portland Public Schools as well as the International School, which offers Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese immersion, Hope Chinese Charter School. Oh, and the German International School.

Die Deutsche Internationale Schule?

Yes, and therein lies a tale.

First, let’s go back to 2008 when the Northwest Chinese Academy (NWCA) opened in Beaverton, a western suburb of Portland. The private school offered Preschool through 5th grade Mandarin immersion and had grown to more than 70 students by 2016 when it purchased a large new space, moving in 2018 from a compact building that had helped form its culture.

In 2018, it also got a new head, Martha Ortiz, a Mandarin-speaker who been the founding head of Wahaha International School, a bilingual international school in Hangzhou, China.

Unfortunately, in the midst of shifting to a new school building and a new head, NWCA began to grapple with lower than expected enrollment numbers for the coming year.

In her second year as Head of School in the fall of 2019, Ortiz began attending meetings where heads of other schools in the Portland area got together to talk and share expertise. At one of these she met Blake Peters, head of the German International School, also located in Beaverton.

In January of 2020, just before COVID-19 hit, Ortiz and Peters had set up visits to each other’s school because they were so close and both focused on language immersion. On her first visit to the German school, Peters showed Ortiz a space that another school had been renting but which would soon be opening up and asked if she knew any schools that might be interested.

“I walked into that space and instantly had this feeling that NWCA would be amazing in this space,” she said.

See Martha Ortiz introduce the Mandarin track at GIS.

Remember that NWCA had just moved into a new space. But Ortiz was convinced there was something there. After one of her weekly meetings with the board of the Northwest Chinese School, she said to her board chair, “Can I share a crazy idea with you?” and broached the idea of possibly moving into the German school’s building and renting out the Northwest Chinese School’s space.

During that difficult period, NWCA was crunching numbers and wondering if it could even make the following year happen.

At the same time, Ortiz and board members were also talking about whether it might make sense to merge with GIS. There were discussions between schools, but no decisions were made.

Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed. The school’s upper grades went to an online model and shifted to teaching via Zoom, though preschool and Kindergarten classes were able to stay full time five days a week under an emergency license. Discussions between the two schools ended as both were busy coping with teaching during COVID.

 At the end of February 2020, the NWCA board made the heartbreaking decision to close. There was a board meeting for a vote and the next day it was announced to the school community and staff. Ortiz and the board felt it wasn’t fair to families to not tell them as soon as possible, to ensure all students could find good placements for the next year and allow for an orderly shutdown, a painful process for the more than ten-year-old school.

It had been a hard year and an even harder winter. Then, out of the blue, the German International School came back to NWCA in mid-May and said things had stabilized enough that it could at least begin talking about possibilities. 

“The commitment wasn’t necessarily to do something but to institute a joint task force, to look at the feasibility and possibilities, and come up with a decision by mid-June,” Ortiz said.

In the midst of the most tumultuous year in the school’s decade-long history, a group from both schools began a series of three extremely intense meetings on Friday afternoons.

“After the second it was ‘Yes, we’re both in.’ By the third week we were pretty certain we were ready to propose it to our families,” said Ortiz.

From preparing to close, the Northwest Chinese Academy now shifted to telling its families, and potential new families, about the three year trial of a potential merger. They led socially-distanced tours, video chats and sent out scads of information.

“It was a truncated timeline — all of this was happening during COVID-19, it was quite remarkable that it all came together,” Ortiz said.

Most of the school’s families made the transition, though some had found other schools in the three months when NWCA was planning on closing. 

In some ways, organizing the transition in the midst of a pandemic helped. “It broke some of the constraints that we were operating under, it gave us this sense of it was OK to do things in an unorthodox way. We were all operating on a right-time, right-place mentality,” said Ortiz.

For the two schools it was an opportunity to expand the languages and cultures that each were able to offer to their communities.

During this process, NWCA staff was touched by the generosity of the German International School, said Ortiz.

“It’s a very warm and supportive community. They wanted to provide a home. They saw the grief and the pain the community was going and they were so open-hearted,” she said.

In the fall of 2020, the newly merged schools opened their doors again. All Preschool and Kindergarten classes were full time five days a week while grade school initially met for two hours a week, running mainly through remote learning. That then increased to three days a week for two hours each time, then to half days, and after the spring break, the grade school students returned to school full time.

The school now has about 250 students, 53 in the Chinese Track and 200 in the German track,  from the 2-year old-class through fifth grade. The Mandarin preschool class has a waitlist. Next year, the school projects it will continue to grow. 

The school continues to be called the German International School, though its opening web page now features the words, “Find out about our new Chinese track.” The options for a new name is scheduled to be discussed in Year 3 according to the 3 Year Plan produced by the joint task force,  but “it’s a low priority on the list of things that need to be done,” said Ortiz.

GIS is beginning to meld the partnership into something new and more powerful, offering a German track and a Chinese track, said Ortiz.  It is an International Baccalaureate school and the grade school Chinese track is in the midst of a three year transition to full integration of the IB framework, while the Preschool and K levels have been using the IB framework from Day 1. 

The school will be truly multicultural. On St. Nikolaus day students were given individual goodie bags, in the German tradition. For the Lunar New Year, students got hong bao (red envelopes) filled with stickers and chocolate coins.

Integrating the two schools is going well, Ortiz said.

“I was out on the afternoon pickup line the other day and saw a 5th grade Chinese track student hanging out with a 5th grade German track student. They were talking and you could tell they were enjoying hanging out together. It’s happening!”

The new school year began on September 8 and everyone is excited for the future.

“We are in the midst of our first integrated New Teacher and Back to School Week that we had the luxury to plan in advance, and the connections and exchanges between all staff in both tracks are inspiring.  We can’t wait to see how we grow this year!”

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