Pioneer Mandarin ‘immersion’ program sinking?

Some eleven years after it began, what is touted as the first U.S. elementary school Mandarin immersion program is reportedly in trouble.

In September 1996, Montgomery County [Maryland] started what it promoted as the first Mandarin Chinese immersion program for elementary students in the country. The program at Potomac Elementary School became a national model, and acclaim and fame followed.

Today, the original class of first-graders are seniors preparing for college. Many continued to study Chinese in middle and high school, but most dropped out in recent years — a handful as late as this fall — citing confusion in the curriculum and difficulties with the instructor. Now, just three of the first 22 students continue to study Chinese at the cluster’s high school….

Critics say there is a lack of resources and appropriate materials, poor coordination among grade levels and inadequate teacher development. There’s even disagreement among educators on what immersion is.

“Immersion can mean many things to different people in the field,” said Elena Izquierdo, vice president of the District-based nonprofit National Association for Bilingual Education and a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “For some, immersion is total immersion, for others it is partial, and some people call one class in foreign language an immersion class.”

It is also important to define the goal of each program; all are not the same, Izquierdo said. Some aim for complete reading, writing and oral proficiency in a foreign language; others might be geared to gaining conversational skills.

At first, the Chinese immersion students at Potomac were “a school within a school,” sticking together from kindergarten through fifth grade. Principal Linda Goldberg changed the format when she arrived in 2002, believing that students learning Chinese needed more interaction with the other students.

Today, 137 students at Potomac, from kindergarten to fifth grade, take math and science in Chinese and other subjects in English, she said.

Judith Klimpl, supervisor of foreign languages for Montgomery public schools, said math and science were chosen because the subjects are taught with many hands-on activities and have concrete vocabulary. There is no intensive grammar or writing instruction in Chinese at this level.

Once students move to Hoover Middle School, lessons in language acquisition intensify, Principal Billie-Jean Bensen said. The students, who used to have two periods in Chinese, now have one, including an “immersion class” in the sixth grade. But, Bensen conceded, the title of the class is probably “not correct.” A single class shouldn’t be labeled immersion, she said.


Children at Potomac Elementary who enroll in the Chinese partial immersion program are taught mathematics and science in the Chinese language, but not the language itself. The result, parents say, is a familiarity with the language and enhanced listening skills when they reach middle school and a more formal language program begins….

The transition to middle school, and then from middle school to high school, lies at the heart of the program’s problems.

“There’s definitely issues with transitioning from Potomac Elementary to Hoover and from Hoover to Churchill,” said Sees. “If you look at the dropout rate in the high school itself, it’s abysmal.”

Immersion students take an immersion class in sixth grade and then are filtered into the standard one-period-per-day Chinese language classes with students who were not in an immersion program in seventh grade, said Hoover Principal Billie-Jean Bensen. They then continue in that traditional language course structure in high school. Schick said that the transition process at Hoover has improved in the last two years.

The first three levels of Chinese language instruction in the county’s schools are generally completed in middle school and the first year of high school, said Duffield….

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