A Chinese immersion school may become a first in Boston

Language immersion programs have become increasingly popular in cities and towns across the country.  If approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Boston Chinese Immersion Charter School (BCICS) will launch in the Fall of 2011 and become Boston’s first Chinese immersion school program.
Language immersion programs are not a new concept; they were first introduced in 1965 in Montreal, Canada to provide English-speaking students living in a predominantly francophone province of Quebec with the opportunity to learn French.  According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, “children who learn a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not…Knowing a second language also gives people a competitive advantage in the workforce. These are some of the compelling reasons for parents to encourage the development of a second (or third) language with their children.” Chinese immersion schools have been well established in New York and on the West Coast, in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.

Modeled after the successful French immersion programs, foreign language immersion programs in the U.S. are designed to enrich students’ academic experiences by teaching them subjects in a second language.  Studies have shown that children below the age of 11 have a stronger ability to learn and speak a second language without an accent.  Rather than studying the second language, students learn the language by hearing and using it in all of their subjects.  This concept is reflected in the vision of BCICS: through an academically rigorous curriculum using Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction, Boston Chinese Immersion Charter School (BCICS) will prepare students in a Kindergarten through 8th grade setting to graduate poised for academic success in high school and beyond.

Helen Chin Schlichte, Chair Emeritus of the Kwong Kow Chinese School Board of Directors and one of twelve founding members of BCICS, helped to assemble a volunteer team of experts in the fields of charter schools and language immersion.    The team collaborated to write a prospectus to DESE for a Commonwealth Charter earlier this year.   BCICS, an innovative school (in contrast to replication charter schools), was one of 25 out of 42 schools chosen to continue to the second round of reviews.  The team will now develop a full prospectus to be delivered to DESE by the first week of November.  A decision from DESE will be made in February.  If approved, BCICS plans to enroll two kindergarten and two first grade classes for the 2011-2012 academic year.  A subsequent grade will be added each year through the 8th grade.  The BCICS team is exploring locations primarily in the Downtown and Chinatown areas for a temporary site for the first three years.  A new and permanent site will be established thereafter.

The program structure of BCICS is in some ways an ambitious departure from other Boston public and charter schools.  The academic year will start three weeks earlier, in August, and the school day will extend to 8 hours, with dedicated elective time for students and professional development time for teachers for two hours every Friday.  In addition, lunch periods will be slightly longer, and class size will be capped at 20 students.   Instruction in all subjects will be taught in Mandarin Chinese except for English language arts which will be taught by a native English speaker and will focus on English literacy. Beginning in third grade, English instruction time will be extended to include some content instruction in English.  English instruction will gradually increase each year and reach close to 50% Mandarin, 50% English in the middle school years.  BCICS seeks to hire teachers who have native Mandarin Chinese skills, are certified as educators and who have at least two years of experience teaching at their grade level and two years of experience teaching Mandarin to non-native speakers.  In addition, BCICS seeks English Language Arts teachers with native English speaking skills and certification in English as a Second Language to teach the English component of the curriculum.  The school will employ Total Physical Response, a tool that actively engages students in language learning through motion. In addition to motion, the school will emphasize language learning through music and art, each of which provide a memory footprint and help children better retain a new language.

In terms of testing and accountability, BCICS will follow the academic standards set by MA DESE.  All students will be tested in English using the MCAS, Measures of Academic Progress, the Developmental Reading Assessment and DIBLES. MCAS testing does not begin until third grade but the other assessments will begin right when the children enter BCICS.  BCICS students will also be tested in Mandarin language arts, oral language development and in content knowledge. Kathy Plazak, community outreach coordinator for BCICS, points to the success of immersion schools in recent MCAS results, stating that the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS) in Hadley, MA was ranked #1 in test performance of its third-graders.   PVCICS is an example of the same type of school that the BCICS team is trying to launch here in Boston.

According to Danielle Carrigo, an educator with national language learning expertise and an adviser to BCICS, the biggest challenge in establishing an immersion school is easing parents’ concerns about the lack of English learning time and to address concerns about how they might support Mandarin Chinese learning for their children at home.  “The best support parents can provide for their children is to express an interest in China, Chinese culture and the Mandarin language,” Carrigo says.  Parents are also encouraged to read to their child every night in the language spoken at home.  In addition, teachers at BCICS will write a blog and weekly newsletter to parents to inform them of classroom activities.

Carrigo also mentions that based on research, students graduating from Chinese immersion programs and transitioning to regular high schools find that their Math levels are higher than those of students attending regular elementary and middle schools.   If the final BCICS prospectus is approved by DESE in February, the Commonwealth Charter will be valid for five years.  After that, BCICS will reapply, and a plans to create a high school component to the school may unfold.

BCICS is currently accepting enrollment interest forms.  While the interest forms do not commit any child to attending the school, they do provide support for the BCICS charter application by showing a community interest in the school. From December through February 15, preliminary applications will be accepted. The best way to stay informed about the school and the application process is to complete an interest form, called an intent to enroll form, which will put the family on the school’s email list for sharing information.  Enrollment is open to all Massachusetts residents, with a preference given to Boston residents.  In the event that demand exceeds the number of slots, a lottery will be held.
For more information, please visit www.BostonChineseImmersion.org

Joanne Wong is a Sampan correspondent.

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