All over the United States, Mandarin Chinese immersion schools are growing in popularity. As early as kindergarten, American children are attending classes taught exclusively in Mandarin. The reasoning is simple: "Everybody gets that China is going to be hugely important in this century,” says the parent of one such child. And with nearly 80% of the students at these schools coming from non-Mandarin speaking households, it seems that learning Mandarin may well be the next big thing in American education.
In the following article, The Wall Street Journal's Ben Worthen illustrates how more and more American students are saying "nihao!" to Mandarin immersion.
More Area Schools Embrace Chinese-Immersion Method
22 August 2012 by BenWorthen | The Wall Street Journal
When kindergartners arrive at the Presidio Knolls School next week for their first day of class, they will be allowed to speak English only on the playground and at a few other times. Most classes will be taught in Chinese.
"There's a real demand for this kind of learning," says Alfonso Orsini, the head of the school, which is adding a kindergarten after several years as a Chinese-language preschool. Construction crews are working to finish the school's campus, a former run-down church on 10th Street. The plan calls for eventually enrolling students through eighth grade.
The Bay Area is now home to 23 such Mandarin Chinese-immersion schools, according to one count, many of which have opened in the last few years. Some of the schools are private—Presidio Knolls among them—while others are public. Still others are charter schools, which are privately operated but receive public funding.
There are approximately 125 Mandarin-Chinese immersion schools in the country, according to Beth Weise, who runs a website for parents of Mandarin-immersion students. Five are in San Francisco, including Presidio Knolls and Aptos Middle School, which also begins a Mandarin-immersion program this fall, as well as a Cantonese-immersion school. Proponents of language-immersion education say the students learn more about all subjects and are better prepared to learn in the future. There's little testing to substantiate the claim, but what exists shows that students may not perform as well in English early on but tend to perform better than their English-only peers in all subjects later.
Parents cite other benefits. "Everybody gets that China is going to be hugely important in this century," says Ms. Weise, who has a daughter at Starr King Elementary, a public school in San Francisco with a Mandarin-immersion program. "If your kid grows up speaking English and Chinese, they will have an advantage."
Chrissy Schwinn, a parent and board member at Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland, says she chose to send her daughter to the school because she and her husband "both traveled extensively and had noneffective language skills to participate in that culture."
Yu Ming opened last year. This year, it received four times as many applications as there were openings.
The Mandarin-immersion schools in the Bay Area have different styles and approaches. Some split the day between teaching in English and Chinese, while others teach exclusively in Chinese.
At Presidio Knolls, the goal is to combine language immersion with a teaching style that designs lessons around subjects the students choose to study. If students are interested in fishing, the class might travel to a pier and a fish market in Chinatown before dissecting a fish back at the school. On the first day of kindergarten, the plan is for the children to decorate the classroom.
"A lot of Chinese immersion takes a traditional approach to which there is a lot of merit but also a lot of problems for kids who want to live in this century," says Mr. Orsini.
As at many Chinese-immersion schools, the students at Presidio Knolls don't necessarily come from families of Chinese backgrounds.
About 20% of the students are children of native Mandarin speakers. About 10% are kids who were born in China but adopted by American parents. Others either have parents of Chinese heritage, but who may not speak the language themselves, or come from families with no connection to China.
Finding teachers fluent in Mandarin and interested in the educational techniques Presidio Knolls wants to use has been a challenge. Those who will teach the kindergartners this fall include a Ph.D. student in Chinese literature and a teacher from a Chinese-language school in Singapore.
Presidio Knolls opened as a Chinese-immersion preschool in 2008 with six children. Today, it has 150 preschoolers and will enroll 16 later this month in its first kindergarten class. It moved from the Presidio to its new home on the former church campus to accommodate the growth. Kindergarten will cost $21,500 a year and run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Getting the kindergarten open is largely the work of Wendy Xa, whose daughter will be one of the first students. Born in the U.S. and fluent in Mandarin, Ms. Xa a former financial services executive, quit her job four years ago to dedicate herself to opening the school.
The renovations to build the first classrooms cost about $630,000, most of which was donated by members of the school's board of directors, Ms. Xa says. She anticipates turning two other buildings on the campus into classrooms and other school space eventually, as well.
She hired Mr. Orsini, who was once her teacher at a New Jersey prep school, to run the place. He started in July. He says he speaks only rudimentary Chinese, but he doesn't expect that to be a handicap.
This month, crews were busy gutting one old building on the campus, hurrying to convert it into classrooms. They also are building a large deck outside the building that overlooks the school's courtyard and can serve a stage for plays and other gatherings.
Ms. Xa looks proudly at the transformation underway. "We're going to focus on the development of the children as well as the language," she says.
Read full article here.