Over the objections of several dozen parents, the Cupertino School District has decided to expand an experimental class into Santa Clara County’s first full-fledged two-way Mandarin-English program.

Starting next year, the school board decided Tuesday night, instruction will be divided evenly each day between Mandarin and English in the class at John Muir School.

The controversial program — which now serves kindergarten students — will remain a pilot project. But the board decided it will be allowed to add one grade level next year, so long as enough families express interest and the district can find space.

“We have always had a strong choice program in our district, and it’s always been because of need,” board member Roberta Pabst said. “This will go or not go based on interest.”

The board vote was a victory for the small group of white and Asian parents who have pushed to have their children educated in two languages. Parents contend the bilingual classes will provide their children with academic, social and job-related benefits.

Last year, the parents persuaded the board to create a pilot language class in which a small portion of each day was devoted to Mandarin instruction. But parents all along wanted the more rigorous two-way class with Chinese- and English-speaking students immersed in each other’s languages for part of the day.

“I’m very happy,” said Lynette Eng, one of the parents who spearheaded the drive for the program. “I’m not going to fight anymore.”

The program has faced opposition from the outset. Last year, it was from parents worried the class would draw scarce funds away from more popular programs. Additionally, a small group of community members complained about the growing presence and influence of Asians in Cupertino.

This week, the complaints came from parents at John Muir Elementary, which has housed the class since last fall. Some parents are upset because they feel the district foisted the program on their neighborhood campus.

Others said the class — which is open to all Cupertino students — detracts from Muir’s neighborhood identity by pulling in students from outside the school’s attendance area.

Parent Christine Shepherd noted that Muir already hosts several English language development (ELD) classes that serve students from throughout the district.

“With the new program, we are becoming less of a neighborhood school,” said Shepherd, who served on Muir’s school site council.

Asian presence growing

To a few critics, the language class symbolizes the growing presence of Asians in the West Valley district’s schools.

“There’s a fear within our community of the Mandarin-Chinese people taking over our schools,” said Lorri Okholm, who has two girls at Muir. “I think these are the first steps into turning Muir into an alternative program, which is basically taking over our school and pushing the English-speakers out.”

Jana Baldwin said many parents are upset that classroom space is being dedicated to a program now serving fewer than 20 students.

Muir parents presented the board with a petition with about 120 signatures Tuesday asking trustees to delay their vote until the concerns were addressed.

But district officials said the complaints were misplaced. They said Muir was the logical site for the program initially because it had extra classroom space. Officials intend to find another home for the program after next year, they said, assuming it continues.

“Our one priority is not to impact a school to the disadvantage of the neighborhood,” Assistant Superintendent John Erkman said.

Proposition 227, passed by voters last spring, outlaws most bilingual classes. But Cupertino officials said they can offer their language program by having parents sign waivers available under the new law. District officials also will comply with a provision that requires instruction to be only in English for the first 30 days of the school year.

Softened stance

Muir parent John Voisinet, who helped organize opposition to the program, said Wednesday he has already softened his stance and is willing to accept the class. Voisinet said parents have been told some of the English language development students will move to other campuses, freeing space for the Mandarin-English program to grow.

“Our neighborhood kids will still be in the majority,” he said.

But Okholm remains concerned. “A lot of us are feeling overtaken by the Mandarin-Chinese community in general,” she said.

Eng was philosophical.

“Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” she said. “You can’t change that. All you can do is show them that the program is viable and successful and that there’s room for alternative programs.”

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