Mandarin-English Program Draws Applause, Hate Mail

Cupertino district to vote on pilot proposal for some kids in early grades

In the face of recent efforts to end bilingual education, some Bay Area parents are hoping to implement a pilot immersion program that would teach students Mandarin and English simultaneously.

The proposal comes as bilingual education opponents are striving to end existing programs, and just after the California State Board of Education granted local school districts the power to maintain or terminate those programs.

The local school board of Cupertino, Calif., received an overview of the Mandarin-English proposal last week. The proposal, which represents a year-old effort by parents, has already stirred deep resentment in a community that has a substantial Asian American population.

Unlike bilingual education, which was designed to teach English to students who knew little or none of the language, organizers of the voluntary immersion proposal are requesting that one kindergarten and one first grade class, at a school be designated by the school board, teach students to speak in both Mandarin and English.

Organizers formally requested that the school board vote on their proposal at its meeting next week. The plan, if passed, could be implemented this fall. If the program is successful in its first year, it would expand sequentially each year to the next grade level.

Marilyn Chi, an education professor at San Jose State University, is among those supporting the Mandarin-English program. She researched the benefits of a two-way immersion program in a Bay Area elementary school last year.

“It was very surprising. I spent five months daily with students collecting data,” said Chi. “My data showed superb outstanding achievement in both languages.”

After studying the benefits of two-way immersion, Lynette Eng, a Cupertino resident, unsuccessfully searched for a program for her 5-year-old son before proposing a Mandarin-English plan.

Eng read about research that indicates improved brain development of children learning two languages simultaneously, and considered the practical benefits that bilingual children will bring to the workforce.

“I think it’s going to be very valuable to our children in the future in the workplace, and it’s an international language,” Eng said.

Eng and local residents’ efforts to implement such a program in the past year, however, have been met both with enthusiastic support from parents wanting their children to become fluent in two languages, and intense criticism from local residents who fear that their community is being overrun by Asian influence.

“I don’t even speak Mandarin,” said Eng, who acknowledged receiving hate messages on her answering machine. “They think I’m doing this for my own selfish reasons because I’m Asian, but I don’t even speak it, and my parents don’t speak it. We were raised in Cantonese.”

Eng noted that numerous Caucasian parents have joined her.

“I’m really interested in the fact that the overall academic achievement for an immersion program is equal to or above what a monolingual or English-only program offered children,” said Kate Apgar, a local resident whose 5-year-old son is also entering kindergarten this fall. “I also do want my son to speak another language and all the research I read, said the earlier children start, the better.”

Apgar, who used to work with numerous Silicon Valley startups, said that her business experience has led her to see the greater value in speaking a second language.

“It’s very obvious that we’re intertwined with the Pacific Rim, and in order to compete globally heading into the 21st century, it’s crucial to speak another language … And China is a market that is opening up,” Apgar said.

School board member Barry Chang, one of three members who has voiced support for two-way immersion programs, also expressed disappointment in the proposal becoming a racial issue, and he acknowledged receiving hate mail since last year.

“Because this is Chinese, because it’s Mandarin, they’re against this–and that’s racism,” Chang said. “I’ve heard people make comments saying we have a Chinese mayor Michael Chang and we resent that, and there are too many Chinese in this community here … And we don’t want Cupertino to become a little Hong Kong … All this is racism, and racism has no place in education.”

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