Mandarin program starts slowly

Language-immersion program could be a magnet for Potrero Hill school

The first Mandarin-language immersion program in San Francisco’s public schools was expected to be a powerful magnet that would draw families from all over The City to Starr King Elementary School, located on the southeast side of Potrero Hill.

The program began with its first students last week, indeed from different corners of San Francisco. However, only three-fourths of the program’s 40 seats were filled.

That’s not what Starr King Principal Chris Rosenberg expected in December, when he told The Examiner that the buzz about the program was so strong he expected “a long waiting list.”

His confidence may have been rooted in the knowledge that for years, parents have lobbied the district for a Mandarin immersion program.

Immersion programs, in which students are taught core subjects such as math and science in a foreign language, are popular in San Francisco’s public schools, where 40 percent of students enrolled in immersion programs are studying Chinese.

Two district elementary schools already have Cantonese language immersion programs. Mandarin, the official language of China, is more widely spoken, particularly in political and economic circles.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who made a publicity stop at Starr King in January to promote the new program, returned last Tuesday to announce that he had allocated $105,000 of city taxpayer dollars to support the district’s fledgling Mandarin immersion program. Mandarin is the world’s most common language, Newsom said, adding that future generations would have a competitive edge if they spoke the Chinese dialect.

Irina Kenderova — one of the parents who pushed the district to offer Mandarin — said she believes her two daughters will be disadvantaged if they don’t speak Mandarin.

Next year, when her oldest daughter reaches kindergarten age, Kenderova said she plans to start her at Starr King — an underenrolled school that has shown strong test score improvement in recent years. However, Kenderova said she knows other parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their 5-year-olds to the southeast school, which is located near public housing projects.

“I’m not sure this is going to fly,” Kenderova said. “It’s not a terribly safe neighborhood.”

The district is scheduled to open a second Mandarin immersion program next fall, at Jose Ortega Elementary, on The City’s west side.

District officials say now-popular language programs at other schools also began at less than capacity. This fall, Starr King began its Mandarin immersion program with 30 kindergarten students, split between two classes, and each year the school plans to add another grade level.

“Parents are excited about the idea, but they are waiting to see how it gets off the ground,” said Myong Leigh, a senior official with the district. “The experience of these 30 families, what they tell other people, willbe the best avenue for recruiting.”

With the San Francisco Unified School District looking for long-term solutions to years of declining enrollment, much faith has been put into the idea that magnet programs at underenrolled schools will attract new families to The City’s public schools, as well as discourage existing families from leaving because they can’t get into a popular school that is overcrowded.

beslinger@examiner.combusinessLocalScience & TechnologyScience and Technology

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