Luke Weigard sat at a table coloring a picture. Under the drawing were characters telling a tale in Mandarin.
The blond-haired 7-year-old practiced writing his name in the Chinese language, but he spoke to his classmates at San Mateo’s College Park Elementary School in English.
Weigard shared a table with Chinese, Taiwanese, Hispanic and black students. Only one was a native Mandarin speaker.
When his classmate, Thien Tam Nam Nguyen Do, scrawled three characters on plain white paper, Weigard said it meant “friends.”
For eight hours each week, Weigard and 143 of his classmates at College Park Elementary speak Mandarin as part of the school’s language-immersion program.
Growing in popularity and number in San Mateo County public schools, language-immersion programs teach young children a second language by using it during regular class time, as opposed to it being a separate subject. Nationally, there’s been a surge in the number of immersion programs since the mid-1980s, according to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.
“We’ve got to prepare kids to work with the Chinese and the world,” College Park Principal Diana Hallock said. “At this age, they can absorb the skills and they have no problem speaking English to me or Mandarin to their teachers.”
An increasing number of parents are realizing the value of Mandarin and other languages, Hallock said. The school started offering the language five years ago, and it’s now immersing all students in the program.
All kindergarten through second-grade students have about one-third of their weekly instruction — or two hours each day — in Mandarin, Hallock said.
Demand for the program is strong. Of the 90 spots she has open each year in the kindergarten classes, there are at least double that in applications.
“There are parents out there who want this for their kids,” Hallock said, adding that within two years, all K-5 children at College Park Elementary will be in the immersion program. “They realize the value of a second language.”
In addition to the school’s program, the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District also offers Spanish-immersion programs at Fiesta Gardens International School and Abbott Middle School.
Those programs also are offered at Adelante School within the Redwood City School District; Alvin S. Hatch Elementary School in Half Moon Bay, part of the Cabrillo Unified School District; and McKinley Elementary School in Burlingame.
McKinley Elementary is adding classrooms to accommodate enrollment growth, which includes demand for the immersion curriculum.
District officials for the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District are currently looking into having both Spanish and Mandarin programs, in response to parent demand.
“There is a rising interest in immersion programs,” said Peter Burchyns of the San Mateo County Office of Education. “I think certainly these are programs are worth taking a considerable look at.”
The county does not have statistics on the number of immersion programs versus those enrolled, he said.
Language-immersion programs, teaching Mandarin and Spanish, at public schools in the county:
Source: California Center for Applied Linguistics