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Mandarin immersion program flourishes at L.A. school

Broadway Elementary in Venice launched the effort to boost enrollment. The plan worked so well the principal is concerned that dual-language learners will outnumber students in regular classes.

December 29, 2011|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • First-grader Charlotte Woodruff (on class pajama day) shows her science project to her dual-language class as Rae Cullen, who teaches in English, looks on at Broadway Elementary School in Venice. The students spend half the day with Cullen and half with a teacher whose instruction is in Mandarin.
First-grader Charlotte Woodruff (on class pajama day) shows her science… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

Twenty-four first-graders scrambled from their seats and plopped onto a rainbow-colored rug in "Wong laoshi's" classroom. In a minute, they would begin a lesson on food groups. But first a quick exercise on water.

"Zhengfa!" teacher Kennis Wong said, using the Mandarin word for "evaporation," and the students jumped to their feet.

"Ningjie!" Wong said next, giving the word for "condensation." And like a forming raindrop, students hugged in small groups.

"Jiangyu!" she said finally, and the raindrops splashed to the floor, giggling the whole way down.

Water cycle complete — and without a word of English — Wong had her students' full attention.

In her Mandarin immersion classroom at Broadway Elementary School, there is not a single English word on the walls. And none of the students are aware that their teacher speaks English.

Her class is a diverse group — some are Asian, others are white and a handful from the Venice neighborhood are black and Latino. Few are native Mandarin speakers.

"It's really fun learning Chinese," said Kyle Pearson, 6. "It's kind of like a tool you use — a secret."

Broadway Elementary last year joined the ranks of more than 200 schools across the state to offer a dual-language immersion program in which students learn in two languages with the goal of becoming academically proficient in both. In the school's "50-50" program, teachers who use Mandarin in the classroom and those whose instruction is in English are paired, and students spend half their day with each.

Broadway began the program to help boost plummeting enrollment — the school had reached a low of 257 students in 2008-09. The experiment worked — maybe too well.

With about 130 students in the Mandarin program so far, school enrollment is now at 330. Principal Susan Wang is concerned that the dual-language learners will outnumber the students in the regular school classes. And, by 2013-14, she figures that the Mandarin program will need a bigger home.

The newcomers to the Mandarin program also changed the demographics of the little neighborhood school. In 2009, 81% of Broadway's students were Latino, 15% were black, six were white and none were Asian. The next year, the new classes of Mandarin immersion students were almost exclusively white and Asian.

"I feel like I'm running two schools sometimes," Wang said, referring to her workload. "Winter break, summer break, spring break, furlough days — none of those mean anything to me. For me, it's about having more time to work."

Indeed, to make the second of the Los Angeles Unified School District's three Mandarin immersion programs successful, parents have to raise funds and staff have to commit to the extra work. The Friends of Broadway booster club contributed thousands of dollars last year, while teachers took on the demands of having two sets of 24 students for three hours each.

It takes "lots of careful, careful planning," said Rae Cullen, who teaches in English and is paired with Wong. "Daily, every hour on the hour, at home, and 'Oh look, Kennis [Wong] is texting me for breakfast this morning!'"

While dual language programs have become popular with parents, some experts caution that the programs must be well run by teachers and administrators.

"These programs have had very good results for the English speakers, sometimes not quite as great for the other language speakers," said Sacramento-based bilingual consultant Norm Gold. "But it all depends on doing a quality implementation."

Even excluding the students in the Mandarin program, Broadway has boosted its standardized test scores — up more than 100 points to 869 on the Academic Performance Index from 2008 when Wang arrived. Mandarin immersion students were too young to be tested last spring, but the school's scores could rise again next year.

Parents like Jack Chen like what they're seeing. Chen grew up going to Chinese school on weekends and "really resented it." But he says his son can't get enough.

"It's not an additional burden," said Chen, a professor of Chinese literature at UCLA. "It's just your everyday school and you're learning Chinese."

Other parents like Lucy Garcia have no connection to China. She lives downtown but drives her youngest daughter back to the school her older children attended. She chose the Mandarin program over English-only classes; the family speaks Spanish at home.

"We mix everything together around the dinner table," she said. "It's fun."

Soon the students left Wong's classroom and migrated to Cullen's next door. One student sang happy birthday in Spanish while another talked in Mandarin about the food groups and a third argued with a friend in English.

Minutes later, students entered another world, reviewing how to make verbs plural. In English.

matthew.stevens@latimes.com

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