On a recent morning in Overland Park, Kan., at a school next to a horse pasture in the middle of the country, a kindergartener raised his hand and asked to go to the bathroom — in Mandarin Chinese.
Students sang a Chinese song about family as teacher Claire Pan, a native of Taiwan, pointed to corresponding characters. Later, when Pan gave instructions for a craft project, a young girl spoke quietly to her classmates at a table.
“That means whisper,” she says.
In a Wolf Springs Elementary School classroom with “Chinese Only Zone” signs taped to the walls, kindergarteners are learning their core subjects in the primary language of a global economic superpower located across the world.
This language-immersion class of kindergarteners is part of a new Blue Valley School District initiative to graduate high school seniors fluent in a second language, an asset school officials believe will give students a leg up as they pursue academics and careers and prepare students to participate in a global workforce.
Blue Valley educators said that they’ve been talking since 2007 about revamping their language offerings, particularly to those outside of the European family. And by 2009, a special committee had recognized in no uncertain terms the need to give students more time and real-world practice if they were to develop students with even a basic proficiency in a second language.
But legislative budget cuts felt throughout the state stalled plans to incorporate longer courses of study for language. And even when momentum picked up later, the district had to make sure its community would support — and sign up for — an opportunity that officials knew Blue Valley families might see as invaluable...or potentially taxing:
Chinese Mandarin, a group of dialects spoken by more than 800 million people, is a tonal language in which the meaning of words can be reflected by voice pitch. Though its grammar is similar to English, words or phrases are represented by Chinese characters.
Besides the usual educational stresses, parents who put their children in the program would need to be committed to the program. Because these kindergarteners are expected to remain together in a Mandarin-speaking classroom all the way through high school, new immersion students can only enter the program in kindergarten.
But any concerns about interest and commitment were quashed when the district secured a grant from the National Security Agency at the U.S. Department of Defense and hosted a 2016 summer camp for children to learn Mandarin.
“That was our toe in the water with our community to see if there was interest,” said Tonya Merrigan, the district’s chief of curriculum. “In under a minute we filled all of the slots. That afternoon we had hundreds of people on the waiting list.”
The camp repeated itself this summer, and this fall, the district’s first immersion class debuted at Wolf Springs Elementary School.
While other elementary-aged students spend roughly 60 minutes studying Spanish per week, this group of kindergartens spends half of their school time each day with Pan learning math, science and social studies in Mandarin. The groups studies reading and literacy with teacher Haley Watkins in English.
Someday, school officials say, Blue Valley hopes to expand its immersion options, matching the success of schools such as Academie Lafayette, the Kansas City, Mo., French immersion school that has become so popular a lottery is used to determine enrollment.
For now, they start small.
“They can count in Chinese, identify numbers up to 10 and they are counting at this point,” Pan said during class earlier this month.
Her students are wide-eyed kindergarteners still navigating how to walk in lines, tie their shoes and raise their hand to ask a question. But even now most don’t seem to think it’s odd to speak in both Chinese and English during their school day.
A road trip to Utah
In the spring of 2013, Merrigan and Blue Valley’s world language coordinator Diane DeNoon embarked on a series of road trips.
The pair traveled to schools in Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, and finally, to the Davis and Canyons school districts in Utah.
As Merrigan and DeNoon prepared to enter a kindergarten classroom, administrators reminded them of a firm rule: Do not speak English once you walk through the door.
Inside, Merrigan said what she observed was “amazingly impressive.”
Students participated in a math lesson, rattling off answers and questions in Mandarin with a consistency that made the class activities hard to follow.
Merrigan tried to keep up but struggled. A student spoke to her, but Merrigan didn’t know what the child had asked, let alone how to respond.
Later, Merrigan and DeNoon visited a seventh-grade classroom where students learn in Spanish. The students were working on language curriculum that high school juniors in Blue Valley used at the time, and were more proficient, DeNoon said.
Blue Valley school administrators say they had long understood the fundamental need to improve the way students retain second languages, a cry that has long been echoed by educators in a country where roughly 75 percent of citizens don’t speak a second language.
On top of that, studies show that dual-language students have better test scores and proficiency in English.
But standing in that classroom in Utah, Merrigan said she acutely understood for the first time the powerful implications of investing in an immersion-style program.
“Honestly, it doesn’t take very long to be a proponent of this,” Merrigan said. “All you need to do is stand in a kindergarten (immersion) classroom in April. They have been there about a year and you have no clue what they are saying because they are speaking fluent French or Spanish or Chinese.”
The experience was a powerful motivator, DeNoon said.
“That was one of those seminal moments,” DeNoon said. “It was like, ‘OK, we have to do that.’”
Looking to the future
Prolonged classroom instruction in other languages — particularly before the age of 13 — is commonplace in many countries.
But in the United States, dual-language curriculum is still not the norm, even as the number of such programs has increased nationwide in recent years.
Blue Valley School District officials said they knew there was community support for learning Mandarin. But they worried about finding enough certified teachers that spoke the language.
The success of an immersion program would rely on the ability to add one teacher to each grade as the inaugural class advances and more students come up behind them.
KU’s Confucius Institute, a community-based Chinese language organization based on the University of Kansas’ Edwards Campus, quickly lent its support, helping connect Blue Valley officials with Pan and Elaine Liou, another Mandarin-speaking para-professional who helps in the classroom.
The organization will continue to help the district develop curriculum and find qualified instructors, Merrigan said. The district has also added Chinese as an elective at two middle schools this year, and tweaked its middle school curriculum so that students studying language have more class time.
DeNoon says she fully expects that waiting lists and lotteries will be in the district’s future as more people learn about the program.
Right now, participants include districted kindergarteners and students whose parents can transport them to Wolf Springs; enrollment information for next year will be released in late winter.
But she is excited about the glimpse into the future that she and Merrigan have seen in other classrooms.
During her visit in Utah, where a rich missionary tradition has led to state support of immersive language programs, the district offered instruction in French, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. Soon, it would add Portuguese to its list of offerings.
“They were growing their homegrown talent to be able to send them away and then to come back,” DeNoon said. “So that’s why we would see a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man teaching and fluent Chinese is coming out of his mouth and your brain is like: How is this possible?”
Wolf Creek students aren’t fluent yet, but earlier this school year, Principal Gretchen Anderson stopped to help a kindergartener open a yogurt as she patrolled the lunch room.
“Thank you, teacher,” the student said casually in Mandarin.
DeNoon said she is excited for third grade, when immersion students typically start incorporating their second language into social situations outside of their classroom activities.
“By third grade, they will be speaking on their own accord in that other language,” DeNoon said. “And that’s when you know you have arrived.”