Popular Chapel Hill Mandarin program leaves elementary school bursting at its seams

Glenwood Elementary Mandarin/English 4th grade students perform a song welcoming the 2014 Chinese New Year, the year of the horse, at the Seymour Senior Center in Chapel Hill in this Feb. 3, 2014 file photo.
Glenwood Elementary Mandarin/English 4th grade students perform a song welcoming the 2014 Chinese New Year, the year of the horse, at the Seymour Senior Center in Chapel Hill in this Feb. 3, 2014 file photo., 2014 file photo

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is again discussing changes to the popular Mandarin/English dual-language program at the district’s smallest school, which faces growing pains.

Glenwood Elementary, which is housed in the district’s oldest school building, is built to hold no more than about 450 students, but already has more than 500 students. Enrollment is expected to increase again next school year both because of an expansion of the Mandarin/English program housed at the school and expected growth in Glenwood’s attendance zone.

At a CHCCS Board of Education special work session this week to discuss the issue, board members showed support for spot redistricting of about 75-100 students just in Glenwood’s attendance zones as a solution for next school year’s crunch, but members also said they need to hammer out a long-term fix.

CHCCS leadership staff is making its own recommendations to the school board and a decision must be made in time to start accepting kindergarten registration on Feb. 1.

The school went through a similar process in 2014 and 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 about the benefits of the program, 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 so-called traditional students to remain as well.

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, is already facing parking issues, CHCCS 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 a 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,” school board member Pat Heinrich said, “unless we’re between a rock and a hard place and we just cannot do anything else, and I don’t think we’re there yet,”

School boar 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.

School booard Chairman James Barrett said CHCCS should work on clearing up exactly what goals the system hopes to accomplish with the Mandarin program. “I want to be sure that we are answering those questions sooner, in the best interest of the community,”

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 the opportunity for, and 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.”