Innovation and Creativity Earns Popular Language Program Countywide Recognition
Stepping up to an easel, with pointer in hand, students begin reading a series of sentences together for their daily lesson. The stick traces over the characters written in bold colors and the students beam with pride as they turn toward the teacher—they’ve read aloud several phrases written in Mandarin.
This is not a small unit or exercise of the year. This is everyday life at the Mandarin Immersion Program, centrally located at Orion Alternative and the students will do much more than learn a couple of key characters or a few words.
The Mandarin Immersion Program, which has seen an explosion of 36% growth in enrollment this year, was recently recognized for its strides in innovation and creativity with the Russell J. Kent Award from San Mateo County School Boards Association.
Miaoqing Fang currently has one child enrolled in third grade and is eagerly awaiting her youngest to enroll in kindergarten. She plans to enroll her second child in RCSD because she has seen the many benefits during their first year in the program.
“In terms of mental development, it helps your brain grow and become versatile,” she said. “It changes your neurological activity.”
With the nimbleness and quickness of an acrobat, the minds of elementary–aged children bounce back and forth between Mandarin and English for all areas of their academic day, including mathematics, reading, science, and history. A kindergartner’s day is 80 percent Mandarin instruction and 20 percent English. By fifth grade, the program day is split equally between languages.
Fang said that the program is not only vigorous in language development but the academics are more challenging in general, large in part due to the dedication of the teachers and staff who offer a “diverse perspective.”
Principal Katherine Rivera echoed this sentiment.
“There’s a high level of engagement,” she said. “It’s not just learning how to say something in Mandarin but getting the kids to understand so much deeper. What they’re learning in Mandarin transfers across the board. And the beauty is, because they’re kids, they’re not afraid to make mistakes.”
Fang, a native Mandarin speaker, is excited about the intermingling of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds in the classroom and in Redwood City itself.
“It’s not just about learning a language—it’s about learning Chinese culture, as well,” she said. “I see strong supportive parents and the parents help each other. I have seen how Redwood City embraces cultural diversity…it creates a welcoming environment for immigrants like ourselves.”
That tightknit parent group has attracted Dennis Li to the Mandarin Immersion Program as he prepares for his toddler to enter kindergarten in a few short years. He heard about the program from parents who were having a playgroup at a local park.
“There seems to be a sense of community around the program, which was exciting to me,” Li said.
He shared that the opportunity for his son to do a full immersion program, rather than picking up what he can in the home, would provide opportunity to increase overall fluency, allowing him to connect with family members who speak Mandarin.
“It provides the students to view the language they are coming from as a strength rather than a setback,” Li added. “You can grow both (language) skills at the same time.”
Students begin to learn Chinese characters, which are pictorial based, with the help of pinyin, the spelling out of characters using letters from the English alphabet, to assist with pronunciation and understanding.
Moving between two lettering types strengthens flexibility for new Mandarin learners and English learners, alike, as well as students who speak other languages at home.
Principal Rivera added that children are immersed through all senses as they work--visual, tactile and auditory--which is “good for all kids because they are presenting in very different ways” in the classroom.
From addition practice that combines drawings of animals with Mandarin characters for numbers one through ten to lessons about the colors of various flags, each part of the day is a very purposeful balance between the languages.
“Kids are doing things they didn’t even think they could do,” Rivera said. “They are very proud of themselves to be doing something different...they develop awareness beyond their own community and culture which becomes the norm for them.”
Language is learned through all areas of academics. Mandarin language is used for instruction, allowing students to naturally learn the Chinese characters and oral language. Research and practice has shown that this must be taught cohesively along with hands-on activities for students to reach their goals.
Fang added, “(My son) feels proud to be able to speak fluently. I don’t think that would be possible in an afterschool program or weekend school. Full immersion is needed.”