Building Community

There was an interesting article in this morning’s Chronicle about the Mandarin immersion program at Starr King Elementary School. While the article is framed in a sort of cutesy way, the program is actually quite interesting.

This year, Starr King started a Mandarin immersion option for newly enrolling kindergarten students. The students are given directions in Mandarin and taught in Mandarin. Thanks to flexible young minds, most of the students are picking up the language fairly quickly. Although students still use English outside the class and in private conversation, there seems to be a growing tendency for students to be bilingual, switching easily between the two languages.

Starr King also has a Spanish immersion program, so it’s kind of neat to think about all of these different languages being spoken at school and on the playground—it is also a very interesting way to integrate a school, encouraging students from a wide variety of backgrounds to attend. Starr King is probably more diverse now than it would be ordinarily, and the school strongly stresses that all the programs are part of the same school, that students are not segregated and do play and work together.

I think this concept is excellent on a number of levels. First of all, I think that bilingual education is very important. You develop a better mind when you force it to work at acquiring an extra language (or two), as well as being more able to function in society. The students in the Mandarin program now have an advantage: the ability to communicate in two different cultures. If they pursue the program, growing it grade by grade, they may graduate as students fluent in two languages, which is pretty darn excellent. The Mandarin program kids will probably have a better chance at getting into a college of choice, and will probably do better once they get there. So, on that level, the school is helping youth.

The program is also helping society at large, though. As the Chronicle article points out, the Parents and Teachers Association for Starr King has grown a great deal, with “old parents” getting involved with “new parents” from the Mandarin program. Not only are the children playing nicely, but so are the adults, apparently. Which is interesting, when you consider that most adults resist change and influx from new directions. It is an excellent thing to see cooperation within the school administration, the parents, and the children involved.

The program also may be what saves the school, and this is a good thing as well. I see it as an innovative approach to a problem, and one which I hope is modeled by other school districts as well. If you are losing enrollment, make your school an attractive place to be for students from a wide variety of backgrounds. If you are under threat of closure, make your school a valuable addition to the community, so that administrators have a more difficult time justifying the closure.

I’m all for bilingual education…I wish that I had been given access to it as a child. I have a feeling that the program at Starr King will be successful, and hopefully will encourage other school districts to follow suit. It would be excellent to see a generation of students bilingual in languages like Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic. I also suspect that a ripple effect would result, and that perhaps a greater global cooperation might result from saturation in different languages and cultures.

But maybe I’m just an idealistic hippy.

[bilingual education]