Mandarin magnet school the right choice for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

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

In September, the Board of Education of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) district voted to expand the Mandarin Dual Language (MDL) immersion program into a school-wide magnet. Because this will require redistricting for Glenwood Elementary, its opponents have waged a vocal, public campaign to cast doubt on the entire process. We and other supporters of the program want to set the record straight.

First, the need for redistricting results from the fundamental challenge of school size limits and continued population growth in our community. Glenwood is the smallest elementary school in the district: even if the MDL program were not expanded, the school board would still face difficult redistricting choices. By transforming Glenwood into a magnet school with fixed student enrollment, the board has chosen a way forward that manages this basic size-growth conundrum.

Moreover, dual language immersion programs will offer an even greater district-wide benefit, in the face of the new, unfunded class size mandates for K-3 passed by the state of North Carolina. While the district will need to add more teachers and classrooms to other elementary schools to meet these mandates, dual language immersion programs are exempt from these restrictions — meaning they can enroll more students per classroom than the state mandate simply by maintaining their current size. This absorption of additional students helps the district as a whole by reducing the overall number of students to be accommodated in other K-3 classrooms.

Second, the benefits of dual language immersion can help achieve the greater goal of equity for the district as a whole. Studies have shown students in dual language immersion programs have higher scores overall in math and reading regardless of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic, or special education status, and gains are greatest for the lowest performing students. In other words, dual language immersion programs are part of the solution to issues of educational equity, not an obstacle to it! The MDL program is open by lottery to all kindergarten and first grade students, meaning that all students and families have the same chance to benefit.

Finally, there is the benefit of teaching Mandarin as a way to educate globally literate citizens. China is poised to have the world’s largest economy by 2030. For parents without any exposure to Chinese, learning the language may seem formidable. But this is the great beauty of teaching Mandarin at such a young age — while adults would sweat at the difficulty of it, your kindergartener will come home singing songs, counting, and saying Chinese phrases without thinking twice about it.

It’s no wonder that more and more neighboring districts, such as Wake County Public Schools, are eager to implement their own Mandarin programs. Here in the CHCCS district, our Mandarin program has a sixteen-year track record. Why would we not want to build upon this proven success?

Opponents have focused on the Board of Education vote, demanding that one board member recuse himself because his child is in the MDL program. But four board members voted in favor of the magnet school plan and all members advocate for policies consistent with their priorities. According to the board’s own bylaws, recusal is expected only in cases where a member might obtain direct financial gain.

Without question, any time school redistricting occurs it causes frustration for affected families. Change can be difficult. But so is the continued wrangling and uncertainty for all of our children. By transforming Glenwood Elementary into a Mandarin dual language immersion magnet school, the CHCCS Board of Education has chosen a path forward that manages persistent capacity issues, helps close the achievement gap, and creates globally literate citizens.

Michelle King lives in Chapel Hill.

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