Language plan pushed by parents

English-Mandarin idea pondered

Undeterred by a statewide campaign to eliminate bilingual education,
a group of Cupertino parents will ask the school board tonight to create an English-Mandarin language program.

The voluntary alternative program would allow Chinese-speaking students to become fluent in English, beginning in kindergarten, while their English-speaking classmates learn Mandarin.

Trustees will hear a presentation about the proposal tonight, although they are not scheduled to take a vote on it.

Parents said the program would enhance academic achievement and better prepare students for the increasingly global work world.

“I feel it’s an opportunity to learn two languages, and it tends to bring up academic skills to levels that are equal to or higher than monolingual programs,” said parent Kate Apgar. “I want to give my son the best opportunity to succeed, and putting him in a language class in the seventh grade is too late.”

The Cupertino parents have proposed starting a pilot class at one campus for either kindergarten or first-grade students, beginning this fall. The district would add a grade each year.

Such programs, known as dual-immersion language classes, are somewhat rare in California schools, largely because they require a balanced mix of English-speaking and foreign-language students. Strong parent support is also necessary because students need to stay in the program for its duration to be successful, said John Erkman, assistant superintendent in the Cupertino Union School District.

Similar programs are offered in San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Francisco. They differ from more common bilingual programs, which serve primarily students who are not fluent in English.

In most two-way immersion programs, English-speaking students share classes with foreign-language-speaking students. About 16 percent of Cupertino’s 15,000 students come from homes where Mandarin is spoken.

But the Cupertino parents said they are also targeting second- and third-generation Chinese families, whose children speak little or no Mandarin.

Los Altos parent Lynette Eng, one of the main proponents of the plan,
does not speak Mandarin, nor does her 5-year-old son. But she believes the process of learning a language helps brain development and will benefit her son educationally.

“This is not comparable to a regular English-language development program,” Eng said. “It’s a gifted program. You exercise untapped areas of the brain, and you can use that later on in life.”

Indeed, studies have shown that students in two-way immersion programs tend to do better academically than students in other bilingual education programs or English-only classrooms.

Forest Park Elementary School in Fremont has run a two-way language program for five years, with instruction divided evenly between English and Mandarin,
starting in kindergarten. Last year, fourth-graders in the program scored above the school and district averages on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, Principal Henrianne Yee said.

“It’s a wonderful experience for the children,” Yee said. “Especially at kindergarten, the language is integrated throughout the day. So in math,
they may do their counting in Mandarin as well as English. The same with science — they learn their sensory words in both languages. The children are not at all bothered by this.”

The Cupertino parents have not determined what type of dual-immersion program they favor. In some models, instruction is divided equally between English and the second language from Day One. Other models immerse students almost completely in the foreign language for the first few years, and then gradually introduce English.

Eng said backers of the plan have already detected some anti-Asian sentiment since unveiling their proposal. But she stressed that the program is not intended to help Asian students only.

“This is for the whole community,” she said. “This is not an Asian issue.”

Board member Barry Chang has already endorsed the proposal. And more than 40 parents agreed to sign up for the program at a February informational meeting, Eng said.

Cupertino has a long history of supporting alternative programs that have strong parent support, noted school board president Roberta Pabst.
Three schools offer alternative programs, emphasizing either basic skills,
parent participation or math and science.

“There are a lot of good ideas out there, and this is another one,”
Pabst said. “But the question is, is this the appropriate language?
Does this meet the needs of the whole community?”

Another consideration, Pabst said, is that the proposal comes less than three months before voters are scheduled to vote on Proposition 227, a June ballot initiative that would require that most public school instruction be in English.

Backers of the initiative have said that dual-immersion language programs would probably be illegal if the ballot measure passes. But in some instances,
parents may be able to keep the programs alive by using a waiver process included in the initiative.

“If the initiative passes, it will probably take a long time to take effect,” said San Jose State education professor Marilyn Mei-Ying,
one of the plan’s backers. “I think it will be tied up for a long time in the court. I’m not worried.”

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