Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board moves closer to Mandarin language magnet school vote

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

Work continues on what to do about overcrowding at Glenwood Elementary, with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board still poised to vote this spring on whether to let traditional-track students stay at the school.

The board voted in September to make Glenwood, the smallest elementary in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, a dual-language Mandarin magnet.

But after a controversy surrounding communication between two board members and parents of Mandarin language students, then-board Chair Rani Dasi announced the vote would be revisited. At the administration’s request, the board also delayed implementation of the magnet program by a year.

Currently, Glenwood has both a dual-language track with students selected by lottery and a traditional track for students who live in the school’s attendance zone.

Since the board voted to delay implementation of the magnet program, where all students would be selected by lottery, with traditional-track students moving to nearby elementary schools, the district has formed an implementation committee made of Principal Katie Caggia, Assistant Principal Channing Bennett, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jessica O’Donovan and teachers from both the Mandarin and traditional tracks.

The committee plans to add two parents – one from the Mandarin track and one from the traditional track – before its next meeting. It is looking at retaining a traditional track at the school. Students in that track would study Mandarin, but not in the dual-language immersion model that their classmates in the other track would be following.

Representatives from the committee updated the board on its progress Thursday night.

More input to come

The committee held a parent and community input and engagement session late last month. The committee also visited Stough Elementary Mandarin Immersion Magnet School in Raleigh last month. A second input session is planned at a date to be decided.

The committee also has meetings scheduled for this month, March and April, with another committee update to the board in March.

The committee is expected to present a draft implementation plan on April 18 and the board is to vote on the plan May 2.

Committee representatives Thursday said the essential issues the committee is addressing include whether it’s possible to address overcrowding while maintaining a two-track program, diversity, strengthening the Mandarin program and ensuring access and opportunity for all students, and uniting the Glenwood community.

There is also a survey about recommendations open to the public on the Glenwood website.

“I feel like our meeting has happened in the spirit of compromise and listening to one another,” said committee member Melissa Town, a traditional-track teacher. “I feel like reality is not every person is going to get the bucket list of every single thing that they want from the plan. It’s just not possible with something like this, but I’ve been really excited.”

“I feel really positive,” said committee member Bill Rathbun, a Glenwood counselor. “I was amazed with how much we got done in one day.”

O’Donovan said the committee was purposely chosen to be diverse and to represent all sides.

“It is very challenging,” she said, “to think about all of the questions and concerns that have been raised, not just over the last six months but over the last however many years.”

Ethics questioned

The vote to make Glenwood a magnet was 4-3.

After the vote, parents of traditional-track students obtained e-mails and texts from board members Pat Heinrich and James Barrett that the parents say showed improper contact between Heinrich and Barrett and parents of children in the Mandarin program. Some parents also felt that Heinrich had a conflict of interest because he has a daughter in the Mandarin program. The board’s legal counsel cleared Heinrich and Barrett of any conflict of interest.

In an earlier interview with The Herald-Sun, UNC School of Government professor Frayda S. Bluestein agreed that there was no conflict of interest, adding that a conflict of interest usually involves a monetary gain. She said, however, that both members may have board policies by the vote. Both Heinrich’s and Barrett’s terms expire in the fall. Barrett has said he will not be running for reelection and instead is running for state superintendent of public instruction.

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