Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, and this fall, West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) kindergartners will be both speaking and learning it. On February 15, the WCCUSD Board of Education approved a new Mandarin dual-immersion school that will open for the 2017-2018 academic year.
The school, which will be located at the Serra Adult School campus in Richmond, will immerse students in Mandarin, starting in kindergarten and eventually continuing through sixth grade, creating both biliterate and bilingual students.
“It helps students to have the opportunity to interact with people who speak Chinese for both business and career—and academic and social—interaction, which will certainly give them advantages,” said Dr. Eric Peterson, the WCCUSD director of elementary special education programs.
The school will begin dual-immersion instruction in kindergarten, an age when students are beginning to develop language skills, Peterson said.
“It’s the best time for students to be learning a new language,” he added.
Like the district’s Spanish dual-immersion programs, kindergartners in the Mandarin program will spend 90 percent of the school day speaking Mandarin and 10 percent speaking English. By second grade, 70 percent of instruction will be in Mandarin and 30 percent will be in English, and this will continue until the day will be split evenly between the two languages, Peterson said.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, the 90-10 dual-immersion model provides a strong foreign language immersion experience for native English speakers, and according to the Califorina Department of Education, this model produces higher levels of bilingualism than other models.
The school will open with three 24-student kindergarten classes and will add a grade each year as students progress.
The district will pay $600,000 in initial staffing costs for new teachers and support staff for the Mandarin school, and $125,000 for supplies to upgrade the Serra Adult School campus for kindergarten students. Another $75,000 will be spent to build a kindergarten playground on the campus.
The Mandarin dual-immersion school will be open to all students entering kindergarten. There is no requirement for students to speak Mandarin prior to enrollment, but half of the incoming class must represent children from low-income backgrounds, children who are English language learners or foster youth, Peterson said.
“We want to make sure that this is a diverse school that is creating equity and opportunity for kids,” he said.
Along with opening a new dual-immersion school, the district also plans to expand the existing dual-immersion Spanish program at Washington Elementary School in Point Richmond. Another 24-student dual-immersion classroom will be added along with the school’s two existing such classrooms.
“The district is still working on additional steps to strengthen its language immersion offerings,” WCCUSD communications director Marcus Walton wrote in an email response.
Bryan Brandow, a fourth and fifth grade Spanish dual-immersion teacher at Washington Elementary School, said he’s excited to see the district’s commitment to these programs. “It’s a way to maintain the culture of the community and to value it and to give students an opportunity to earn more money and to have an edge of getting in to college,” he said.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 10,600 students in the district, over 34 percent of the student body, were classified as English language learners. Of those, nearly 9,000 listed Spanish as their first language.
In dual-immersion classrooms, English learners and native English speakers learn together at the same pace, which Brandow said allows students to help and teach each other.
“That’s part of the immersion aspect—it’s not just me who’s the one providing instruction,” Brandow said. “In dual-immersion, both languages are of the same status. That’s what makes it powerful.”
The United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) union released a statement supporting the district’s commitment to dual-immersion programs, but also expressing concern that expansion of those programs might displace current students and teachers by replacing traditional track classrooms in schools.
“To grow dual-immersion in Washington, there has to be space and there have to be teachers,” UTR President Demetrio Gonzalez said in an interview, explaining there is concern that the district will have to “get rid of the traditional track to fit” the expanded dual-immersion program.
The district has not announced plans to expand the dual-immersion Spanish program at Washington Elementary School beyond creating an additional kindergarten classroom.