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Bump in the road

Signups falter for Mandarin Chinese immersion class

Starting last year with enthusiasm, the Mandarin Chinese immersion program has hit a bump - there are not enough children to fill its first kindergarten class.

The program would have been at River Grove Elementary School, but the Lake Oswego School Board chose to cut the program for this year. The district will still maintain its preschool, which has six students, and its pre-K, which has eight students, at Bryant Elementary School.

The parents must enroll their students on a first-come, first-serve basis for the opportunity for their kids to learn from a bilingual teacher. For pre-K and preschool classes, parents pay tuition.

Jonnie Shobaki, director of elementary education, said that the district had hoped to have at least 20 students in its kindergarten, and there were only 16 enrolled by the board's Aug. 22 meeting.

'I actually expected that we would have gotten more,' said Shobaki.

She suspects that there are a few reasons the numbers just weren't there. Often times families sign their children up for a number of different programs to make sure there are back-up options if their first choice doesn't work out. Then the families drop the programs if their child is accepted into their favorite program.

In the district's Spanish immersion kindergarten, which kicked off last year at Lake Grove Elementary School, the district started with 25 enrolled, but ended up with only 18. While it had been discussed in the past to extend the Spanish program to the next level, the board chose not to do so this year.

In addition to the enrollment struggles, however, the district had a hard time finding a Mandarin teacher. The district searched for a teacher who could also teach the Read Well curriculum, which is the early childhood reading program, but many Mandarin language teachers did not have enough mastery of English pronunciation to be able to teach it. Many also didn't have experience teaching more than 20 students.

At last week's board meeting, parent Sarah Howell, a key proponent of language immersion at the elementary level, said that the parents opted out of the class because the district had no plans to expand it through fifth grade.

'Parents are hoping that LOSD can someday offer programs that will give students the opportunity to become bilingual, bi-literate and prepared to engage in the global economy,' she said. 'A program that ends after the kindergarten year will not achieve that result.'

Her son was in last year's Mandarin pre-K and was headed to the River Grove Mandarin kindergarten. According to Howell, only five of those enrolled were from last year's pre-K class.

'This means that 11 additional families were willing to sign up for a one-year Mandarin kindergarten program,' said Howell. 'I believe this is a significant number and I hope our district will be open to expanding the Mandarin program again once a K-5 commitment can be made.'

With the new kindergarten not an option anymore, the Howells enrolled their son at Forest Hills, his neighborhood school. The family plans to supplement with an after school Mandarin Chinese program at the Chinese American International School, which meets in the United Methodist Church in Lake Oswego. Long term, however, the Howells have their eye on the recently approved Beaverton Mandarin immersion charter school or Portland's existing Mandarin immersion program.

In Lake Oswego, the school board plans to revisit expanding the Spanish immersion program to a 1-2 classroom next year, but students of Mandarin - at least for now - won't get the same opportunity. Whether the district tries to offer Mandarin immersion kindergarten again next year is up in the air.

For now, Shobaki is working with the Community School to offer more structured Mandarin classes before school on a tuition basis to supplement its pre-K and preschool Mandarin immersion classes. Those classes could be offered as early as October.