As this school’s Mandarin language efforts expand, some other families feel pushed out

Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill.
Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill. N&O file photo

A vote to expand a Mandarin program will convert Chapel Hill’s oldest elementary school into a magnet school, will send local students who don’t want to learn the language to other schools and will make some teachers, who only teach in English, transfer to other schools in the district.

The change, approved recently on a 4-3 vote from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education, has upset some Glenwood Elementary School parents, who say there isn’t enough interest in the program to justify a Mandarin dual language magnet school. They also say they’re angry and surprised the administration created the proposal without input from them.

“We were waiting on a call from you all about the working group we were promised,” parent Ron DiFelice told board members. “It never came.”

The Mandarin dual-language classes will be phased in from kindergarten through second grade at Glenwood. The district will offer 45 rising first-graders in the so-called “traditional” classes, which are only taught in English, the option to enroll in the Mandarin dual language classes.

If their families decline the invitation, those students will likely be redistricted to Northside Elementary School or Rashkis Elementary School the next academic year.

The purpose of the drastic change is to address overcrowding at Glenwood, as well as attrition in the Mandarin-English dual language classes in the upper levels, school district leaders say.

In this file photo at Glenwood Elementary School, student Amy Liu holds up her drawing of a cheetah and the Mandarin Chinese word for the animal. N&O file photo

In the past, the board discussed moving the program to a larger school or cutting the program down. In 2012, district leadership recommended to the school board to end the dual language program at Glenwood, but the board at that time didn’t agree.

“This has been a process over the last 6 years,” Assistant Superintendent Jessica O’Donovan said in an interview.

“The administration has been charged with conducting research and gathering feedback from stakeholders. It certainly didn’t start with me. It has been going on over the last 5, 6, 7 years. The charge was to develop a long-range plan for the Mandarin dual language program.”

Rani Dasi, chairwoman of the board, was among the three board members who voted against the recommendation. She questioned how the district would hire bilingual teachers, and she wanted a more detailed breakdown of the cost to expand the program.

She noted the urgency of a solution to address overcrowding, but said she struggled with the process of how the solution was reached.

Board member Amy Fowler asked Superintendent Pamela Baldwin whether it was possible to delay the expansion. But Baldwin said the district needed to act to meet a new state class-size law by 2020.

“We don’t believe there’s another option, except the ones that we’ve shared that will meet the timeline for 2020,” Baldwin said.

Class-size questions

Glenwood has 494 students enrolled this year. The school’s capacity by 2020 is 379 students.

Even if the Mandarin program wasn’t expanded, the school board would have to redistrict some students to comply with the law passed by the General Assembly that caps the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade traditional classrooms.

The class-size reductions began this year statewide and will be phased into the next three years. By the 2021-22 school year, kindergarten classes will be capped at 18, first grade at 16, and second and third grades at 17.

Dual language classes are exempt from the the class-size law. Class sizes in the dual language classrooms at Glenwood would remain at 24 students, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent of support services.

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The Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood offers two classes, or tracks, in each grade level. District leadership recommended adding three or four dual language classes in both kindergarten and first grade, and eventually second grade, to ensure 80 percent of instruction is in Mandarin and 20 percent in English. Third- through fifth-grade glasses will continue to receive 50 percent of instruction in Mandarin and 50 percent in English.

Kindergarten and first-grade classes will have additional dual language classes beginning next year. It’s unclear how many traditional teachers will be transferred next year, because the district doesn’t yet know how many dual language classes will be needed.

“If we recruit teachers from China, they are not necessarily trained to teach ELA (English Language Arts), according to the North Carolina standards,” O’Donovan said. “And so the model that is being proposed is to have an ELA teacher on each grade level that would be pushing in and co-teaching the English literacy block. Depending on the number of sections we offer, and depending on the model that we offer, we don’t yet know what teachers would need to be reassigned. That would be part of developing a plan.“

Displaced teachers

The district will help displaced traditional teachers at Glenwood to find new positions in the district.

The next step for district leadership is to form a committee of administrators, parents and teachers from Glenwood, along with other community members, to decide how students will be redistricted, how teachers will be re-assigned to other schools and how the district will recruit Mandarin dual language teachers and other bilingual staff, O’Donovan said.

Leadership will form the committee in November. The implementation plan will be presented to the school board in early spring.

Students who graduate from the dual language program at Glenwood and wish to continue with the language can attend Phillips Middle School, where an advanced Mandarin language class is offered. Leadership recommended adding a bilingual content class at the middle school, either social studies or science, for each grade level.

The traditional program will continue for the next four years for the rising second- through fifth-graders. These students will be grandfathered into the program. Eventually, some of these traditional teachers will also be transferred to other schools.

“We were trying to start everybody fresh in Mandarin when class begins in first grade so that starting next year, the whole school would be studying Mandarin,” O’Donovan said.

‘No evidence’

Still, some traditional parents argue that there won’t be enough interest to fill the additional dual language classes, because the school already struggles to keep students in the program.

“They have trouble filling two full tracks all the way through fifth grade, and now they’re proposing to do four tracks and fill the school,” DiFelice said.

“And they point to, ‘Oh well, there’s a 49, or so, person waitlist for kindergarten in the program right now. Well, that’s an outlier and an anomaly. There have been some years where there’s been no wait list for the program. So they have provided no evidence that they’re even going to be able to fill the classes, which will not at all help with their class-size requirements.”

LoFrese and O’Donovan will present a plan on student reassignment in December, with the hopes that the board will approve it and adopt it in January, before the kindergarten registration starts on Feb. 1.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__