Changes in Mandarin program possible as Chapel Hill-Carrboro confronts school crowding

Students in Glenwood Elementary School’s Mandarin/English program visit the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill to perform a song and short play in Chinese and English for the seniors.
Students in Glenwood Elementary School’s Mandarin/English program visit the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill to perform a song and short play in Chinese and English for the seniors. News and Observer file photo

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will look at possible changes to its popular Mandarin program to address crowding at its smallest elementary school.

Glenwood Elementary, which is the oldest CHCCS school building, is built to hold 450 students but already has more than 500, with enrollment expected to go up next school year because of an expansion of the dual-language (English-Mandarin) program there and expected growth in Glenwood’s attendance zone.

At a recent school board meeting, members showed support for spot redistricting of up to 100 students just in Glenwood’s attendance zones as a solution for next school year’s crunch.

But members also said they needed to hammer out a long-term fix.

Students in the Mandarin progam at Glenwood Elementary School learn calligraphy in this file photo. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is looking at the future of the popular program as it deals with crowding. News and Observer file photo

The district’s leaders are expected to make recommendations to the school board Nov. 2. A decision must be made by kindergarten registration, which starts Feb. 1.

The school went through a similar process in 2014, when staff recommended a spot redistricting for the short term and either converting Glenwood to a language magnet school or changing the Mandarin program to a less-intensive model. The board approved the redistricting but took no action on the long-term answer.

Other solutions discussed three years ago included moving the Mandarin program to a larger school.

The board heard from nearly 40 parents and teachers this month, some saying they moved to Chapel Hill from another state because of the program. Many expressed support for the Mandarin program while also expressing a desire for the so-called traditional students, who are not in the program, to remain as well.

Different model

Parents also spoke against changing the Mandarin program to a different model than the current one, saying it would end the program to their minds. Others expressed how the neighborhood and school, including the Mandarin program complement each other.

Glenwood, on a high-traffic area of N.C. 54 near the Fordham Boulevard interchange, already facing parking issues, Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Todd LoFrese said, and each of the school’s 20 classrooms and five mobile classrooms are in use. Next year the Mandarin program will need an additional classroom.

LoFrese said bringing in more mobile units wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t address the parking issues or issues with a cafeteria and media center not designed to handle 500 students.

“It really is a difficult area to navigate,” LoFrese said, “day in and day out, morning and afternoon.”

“Overcapacity is not a reason for revising a program,” board member Pat Heinrich said, “unless we’re between a rock and a had place and we just cannot do anything else, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Board member Andrew Davidson asked about combining smaller classes into one that would make a fourth-grade class of 30. LoFrese said the class would be 33 in a classroom not designed to hold that many.

Board Chairman James Barrett said he would like CHCCS to clarify its goals for the Mandarin program. “I want to be sure that we are answering those questions sooner, in the best interest of the community,” he said.

August Wells was one of the dozens of parents who spoke glowingly of the Mandarin program, saying she had passed up job opportunities because she wanted her daughter to remain in the program.

“I just want to pass something on to my next generation that I didn’t have the opportunity for,” Wells said. “I just think it would be a shame to take it away either from someone who’s on track and anybody who would have gone on track.”