There is a popular perception in America that in the Chinese language, the word for “crisis” and “opportunity” is the same. Though most Chinese philologists disagree, introducing Chinese as a language immersion program in Natrona County School District has seemed to be both a crisis and opportunity for Casper.
Recently, the Natrona County school board approved a Mandarin Chinese program beginning in the fall at Paradise Valley Elementary School.
This was one-third the number of dual-language immersion programs that some parents and proponents had hoped for. And it was one too many for some concerned parents.
But Chinese in the public schools is both a crisis and an opportunity.
We support parents, teachers and leaders in the community who believe that more foreign language instruction is necessary in public education. We also subscribe to the notion that introducing foreign language at the junior high or high school level is far too late.
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Dual-language programs are hardly new and they have a proven record throughout public education in America. That’s why it makes sense to support a program, especially in a world economy that demands fluency in multiple languages.
However, we also share parents’concern about the speed and force at which this program has been pushed through.
The real concern is the rapid pace at which the dual-language program might be alienating some parents who could become the program’s biggest supporters.
School board members told concerned parents the introduction of the dual-language program had been established with remarkable speed, but they wanted to be responsive to the request.
Plans for the dual-language program didn’t take a spotlight position in board business until January at the earliest. That means that the program will go from drawing board to reality in just about eight months. For a district that drafts years-long reports, takes years to build schools and vacillates on issues like accountability, the speed with which the dual-language program has moved has been remarkable and a bit puzzling.
Why the rush? We understand the argument that every year the school district delays it means one more class that may not have the opportunity for an immersion program, but this seems sudden.
We also understand that a group of dedicated parents has been organizing and pushing for dual-language programs. Truly, that kind of parental involvement should be the standard rather than the exception.
Yet, we’re concerned that the program has been pushed through too quickly. We’re not alone. Some of the board members expressed the same concerns.
For example, how will staff be trained to follow students through the program? How will curricula in the program align with state standards?
We agree that the school board has to be responsive to parents’ input, needs and suggestions. But being responsive can’t come at the expense of ensuring a quality education that guarantees student success.
We’re also concerned that a class size of 22 students is higher than the state standard. The rationale says that accepting a higher number of students accounts for attrition. But we wonder if smaller class sizes are necessary in order to ensure the success of such an ambitious new program within the district?
Of course, the district also needs to find a qualified teacher in two-and-a-half months.
It might just feel rushed because it is.
We’re concerned that rushing the program risks its falling apart. And, we believe a program like dual-immersion is way too important to risk failure; if it does fail, it will doom dual-language programs for a long time.
Instead of aggressively planning immersion programs in more elementary schools, why isn’t the board planning ways to prove to the community the programs are working?
After all, failure doesn’t just mean lost time or a missed opportunity. If this program isn’t a success, it will fail young students who will be falling behind at arguably the most critical point in their academic career.
This is a program that shouldn’t be rushed. Rather, it’s too important to be rushed.