Every morning at 9 a.m., teacher Xu Gong’s kindergarten class kids sits cross-legged on a bright blue and red rug while going through their morning routine: greetings, then the calendar, and finally counting to ten. A typical Richmond classroom — except for the fact that everyone is speaking in Mandarin.
The Chinese Mandarin dual-immersion program, approved by the school board this past February, welcomed its first three 24-student kindergarten classes in August at the Serra School in Richmond. Like the already established Spanish immersion program, students will begin learning the language from day one, with 90 percent of class instruction in Mandarin.
While the opening of the program has presented new opportunities for the district and its families, it’s brought challenges as well, including an uncertain future for the adult education program.
Previously, the Serra campus was solely occupied by the West Contra Costa Adult Education program. But after approval of the new Mandarin school, some adult classes and the main adult-ed office moved to the Alvarado Campus, about four miles away.
As it stands, the English as a Second Language (ESL) and High School Diploma classes are still housed at the Serra campus, along with other vocational courses. Out of the 29 adult-ed courses offered at Serra in spring 2017, only 10 remain. The rest have either been relocated to Alvarado or are no longer offered.
As the Mandarin program grows, ESL teachers and others worry that those remaining adult classes will eventually have to move.
Kristen Pursley, lead teacher of the adult ESL classes at Serra, is concerned that if the move does occur, adults won’t be able to make it to the new location.
“At Alvarado, we’ve tried to start ESL classes before, but we couldn’t even get one class going,” she said. “It’s just not a place where a lot of immigrants can get to.”
The district has yet to pick a permanent location for the Mandarin school; it could stay at the Serra campus or move elsewhere.
Marcus Walton, the district’s communications director, said “options will be presented to the board in the next couple of meetings,” but did not specify.
Eric Peterson, principal of the Mandarin dual-immersion school, said its “footprint is very small” at Serra. This year, they’re only using two classrooms and the multi-purpose room. He also acknowledged that eventually the school will need more space to grow.
Once the current Mandarin kindergarten classes get to second grade, they will need a total of nine classrooms. This would require the adult education courses to move out of Serra entirely, according to Pursley.
Su Jin Jez, a parent at the Mandarin school, was excited to enroll her kids in the program, and even advocated for it during school board meetings. She’s waiting for a decision to come on a more permanent location—and she does feel the disappointment of the adult education members.
“No family wants to displace another community at all,” she said.
She also said that the district’s bigger problem is enrollment “growing faster than they have facilities.”
The Mandarin school parent group and the adult education staff are working to find solutions.
“Both groups are committed to serving to social justice and providing opportunities for the community,” said Peterson. “We’re both doing very important work.”