The Cupertino Union School District is moving ahead with plans to create a Mandarin-English kindergarten class next year, with the possibility of expanding it into a full-scale two-way language program.

It would be the first Mandarin-English elementary school class among Santa Clara County’s 26 public school districts, officials said.

The school board approved the voluntary pilot program Tuesday night,
responding to a more far-reaching proposal by a group of parents. The parents said the bilingual classes would provide their children with academic, social and job-related benefits.

For the first year, Mandarin instruction probably will be limited. But district officials promised to study the class with an eye toward expanding it into a more intensive two-way language program with more Mandarin instruction.

“It felt like a good way to do it,” said school board president Roberta Pabst. “We’ll be testing the waters and seeing what the community wants.”

The class is contingent on finding at least 25 interested children, and the district’s ability to find outside funds for start-up costs, which are not yet known.

District officials plan to gauge interest by mailing letters to all families that applied for kindergarten next year. An informational meeting will be scheduled within two weeks, officials said.

The program would begin as a kindergarten language “enrichment”
class composed of a roughly equal mix of English- and Mandarin-speaking students. Although a small portion of the instruction will take place in Mandarin, most would be in English.

Modeled after a program at Forest Park Elementary in Fremont, the class will allow Mandarin-speaking students to maintain their home language and English-speaking students to begin learning a second language.

Parent-district compromise

The “enrichment” class is a compromise between what the parents wanted and what the district believed it could realistically put together by the fall.

The parents asked for a “two-way immersion” program in which a mix of Chinese- and English-speaking students become fluent in each other’s languages. Those programs start with as much as 90 percent of the instruction in a foreign language.

But district administrators said they did not have enough time to properly organize such a program.

The district also wants to know if there is enough community interest to support a voluntary Mandarin-English program. To maintain the right mix of students and to ensure that they become fluent in the second language,
Assistant Superintendent John Erkman said, parents usually need to pledge to keep their children in these language programs for several years.

“We need to have a better sense of the community’s long-term commitment to make this something children would begin in kindergarten and continue through fifth grade and maybe into middle school,” Erkman told the board.

The parent group that pushed for the program said it believed the interest exists for a full-scale program. But the group said it was content to start with the less-intensive enrichment class.

“It’s better to just start and get it going,” said Los Altos parent Lynette Eng. “It’s been a long fight, so we’re glad.”

Although still relatively rare in California, two-way immersion programs are gaining in popularity, especially among English-speaking parents who want their children to learn a second language at an early age.

Studies have shown that English-speaking children in the programs often score higher on reading and math tests than monolingual students in regular schools. Non-English-speaking students, meanwhile, tend to do better than their peers in more traditional bilingual programs, according to research published by San Jose State University Professor Kathryn Lindholm.

Some parents and community members criticized the program Tuesday night,
saying district funds and staff time should go to other improvements, such as bringing back music classes. Others argued against having any public school instruction conducted in a foreign language.

Concern about Prop. 227

The board raised concerns about Proposition 227, the June 2 ballot measure that would ban most bilingual education in the state.

The legality of two-way immersion programs should Prop. 227 take effect is unclear. Some educators believe parents could use a waiver process to keep the programs alive, although the classes would probably have be conducted in English for the first month of the school year.

Pabst said the board would worry about the initiative at another time.

“We are not going to let ourselves be held hostage by something that may or not happen,” she said.

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