Menlo Park school board says time isn't right to add Mandarin immersion

District wants to optimize current Spanish programs first

By Barbara Wood | Special to the Almanac

A standing-room-only crowd of parents and supporters of a Mandarin-immersion program for the Menlo Park City School District next fall failed to get the support of the district's school board at its meeting April 23.

Board members heard a presentation by Carol Cunningham, a district resident who has organized backers of a program in which students would have at least half their classes in Mandarin, similar to the district's existing two Spanish-immersion programs. Ms. Cunningham said she represents 120 families and 160 students. They asked to have one Mandarin kindergarten class begin next fall.

Only one parent, Todd Brahana, spoke against the program, asking that it be put off until problems with hiring and teacher support for the existing Spanish-immersion programs can be worked out.

"Adding Mandarin before the Spanish is stable is going to put the entire program at risk," he said.

Board members did not vote on a Mandarin-immersion program, but clearly do not support starting one this fall.

"I would like nothing better than to say go," said board member Terry Thygesen. "But I know it's simply not something that the district can do at this point in time."

Ms. Cunningham said research has found multiple benefits of a bilingual education, including preparing "our children to thrive in the complex global economy." Research also shows "bilingualism is very good for the brain," she said.

Immersion programs are better than enrichment programs, she said, because "language is the tool, not the subject." Students in immersion programs develop fluency, literacy, multi-cultural competence and increased academic achievement, according to her research.

But Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said the district needs to "step back and take a really good look at what we want to do with foreign languages," including a close look at the existing Spanish-immersion programs, before launching a new one.

The district also has a number of projects underway right now, including moving to the Common Core curriculum and opening a new school. "When it comes to time and energy and money, you only have so much," he said. "One of the things I want to do really well is the things we've already committed to."

Ms. Thygesen and other board members said one problem they have with a new immersion program, as well as with the existing Spanish program, is that it's not available to all students who want it.

"We have an obligation to move toward equity of access for all students," said Ms. Thygesen. A lottery, she said, is not equitable. Her goal, she said, is "if it's a choice program, it's a choice that's available to all students."

That argument did not appease parents. "It's more important to at least provide for some than provide for none," said Jennifer Yeh, a district resident with three young children. "There's no way we can provide equal access to all."

Sharon Fendrich, whose daughter is in the Spanish-immersion program at Laurel School, argued that inequality is built into the public schools.

"Every child in our district has access to a better education than children in thousands of surrounding districts," she said. "Hundreds of families in our district have made it obvious that they want a Mandarin-immersion program."

One reason for the sense of urgency by some backers of the program is that immersion programs usually start in kindergarten and older children can't join later. But board members said they need to do more work before starting a new program, including completing a project to identify the core principles of the district.

"We may not be able to put another language on the table any time soon," said board member Maria Hilton.

After the meeting, Ms. Cunningham said she was "very disappointed by the board's response." Ms. Cunningham said that the fact that the district had so many other projects underway seems to be "the showstopper."

"The compelling merits of a Mandarin immersion program were not debated at the meeting, and other challenges are solvable," she said.

"Despite the outcome of last week's meeting, we are optimistic that we will be able to collaborate with the district to find a win-win solution in the near future," Ms. Cunningham said.


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Posted by a parent
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Apr 28, 2014 at 6:04 am

The board members need to do their work and get this language immersion started quickly. This is 2014 - Our children are growing up - And being multi-lingual has so many benefits. Education is always an urgent matter.

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Posted by Concerned
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm

The Spanish Immersion program is in trouble and needs help. Good call not to bring on a new one.

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Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

no the school board does not need to get it together. THIS program is NOT needed. The children need to be fluent in English first. If a Parents wants it they can send their child to a tutor or private school that offers what they want.

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Posted by Encinal Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 28, 2014 at 3:43 pm

I'm in favor of expanding non-English language education in our schools (either through immersion or foreign language instruction for all students starting in Kindergarten), but understand that the district is undergoing many changes at this time (common core, new school, etc.). I would like to hear more from the "Concerned" poster, above, about the "trouble" that the Spanish Immersion program is in and why/what help it needs. Is there a separate PTO for the Spanish Immersion program?

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Posted by Tunbridge Wells
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

I too would like to know why "Concerned" states that the Spanish Immersion program is in trouble. That kind of a statement really demands some more information to be credible.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Apr 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm

The Spanish emersion program had been very successful at siphoning away resources for the general student body. Once we had foreign language for all students but now it is only for the "lottery winners". The emersion program was pushed by a small group of parents who believe it is a better education, even at the expense of the majority of students combined with a feeling that other highly rated districts(PA) have one so we should do, regardless of cost. The emersion class is not integrated into the overall student population, the kids are apathetic about the language and many are now unhappy that they are behind in the core subjects as they think about middle school.
Great decision by the board to not engage a vocal minority with another misguided program for the few a select students. Focus on making our schools better for all not just a few.

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Posted by Trust
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:59 pm

I trust the Board.

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Posted by MPCSD Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on May 6, 2014 at 8:54 pm

In response to "parent", in addition to being wrong on your spelling of immersion, you are wrong on the facts. The Spanish for all program was not terminated because of Spanish Immersion and Immersion did not siphon off those resources. The foreign language (Spanish) for all program in the elementary grades was short-lived and deemed to be unsuccessful as students were not learning. It was terminated during the budget crisis of 2009-10, because it cost the district money as it required additional teachers who had to be brought in as specialists. Immersion teachers are everyday core teachers like any other in the elementary schools, and therefore were not additional resources, just different.

I was there for most of the discussions regarding Spanish Immersion and thought it to be the correct decision at the time. But I agree with the Board to not to add another language, even if a vocal part of the community is screaming for it. It's not about timing, it's about proportioning the student body into pieces that are too small.

Trust, I have to tell you that blind faith is just that - blind. I know every Board Member and consider a couple to be friends. Having said that, they get things wrong - the most obvious being the Facilities Master Plan. After creating a plan and passing a Bond Measure in 2006 to increase the student capacity of our schools, they realized by 2010 that they had undersized the growth and finally in 2013 had to go back to the community for more Bond money. In the meantime, children are back in overcrowded schools without adequate recreational space. I know that is off point, but it is an example that they should be challenged.

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Posted by education
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on May 7, 2014 at 7:48 am

Meanwhile, while the Board and Parents argue, the rest of the world is moving ahead in becoming bilingual or multilingual.

Most of the ones posting here are in the educational and industrial complex - The rest of us are busy actually accomplishing something.

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

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Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 7, 2014 at 2:29 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

Especially when kids can not speak proper English.

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Posted by Rich
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 8, 2014 at 12:51 am

Steve C, you are so right to observe that too many of our students can't speak English proficiently. Perhaps we should start English immersion programs before we expect our schools to pay for Spanish or Mandarin immersion programs. Yes, being multilingual is an asset--if you speak the languages fluently.

If parents want their children to learn Spanish or Mandarin, I suggest the parents pay for weekend or after school classes. My German neighbors didn't expect the school to provide German classes for their kids; instead, they sent their kids to German school on weekends.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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