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January 25, 2011 > Azevada Elementary says 'ni hao'

Azevada Elementary says 'ni hao'

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

As Azevada kindergarten teacher Orchid Wang enters the classroom, she instructs her students in Mandarin to find a spot and sit down on the large rug at the front of the room. The classroom is quiet and lights are dimmed as she leads the young students in a brief yoga exercise before beginning regular class work. Wang says that breathing exercises help young students visualize learning concepts in their minds.

Throughout the day, 90 percent of the instruction is in Mandarin; the other 10 percent in English. All required California educational standards are met except, of course, since this a language immersion class, it's done in Mandarin.

In this global economy, people recognize that effective communication with others from around the world is not only a way to understand different cultures, but also a smart thing to do. As a natural extension, bilingualism is encouraged within schools. So this past fall, a pilot program for the new Chinese (Mandarin) Dual Immersion program began with one kindergarten class at Azevada Elementary School in Fremont. Its popularity has enabled an anticipated expansion to two kindergarten and two first grade classes for the 2011-2012 school year.

The Chinese Immersion Program marks the culmination of over two years of effort of district staff, community groups, and parents. Wei-Lin Tong, head of the Chinese Immersion Parents' Council of Fremont, says, "My father, Professor Ling-chi Wang, and I first approached the District about three years ago. At the time, we were not able to gain much traction in moving forward despite my father's prior successes in starting other Bay Area Chinese immersion programs."

However, Tong began to see a change in Fall 2009. With increasing support from Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) staff, parent and community groups, and FUSD's Department of Federal and State Projects headed by Juan Espinosa, Azevada Elementary School was chosen as the sponsoring site. In May 2010, the School Board listened to a detailed presentation of the program, and at its June 15 meeting, approved the Chinese Dual Immersion Program which began in September with one kindergarten class of 27 students.

Parents and community efforts managed to raise startup costs; no money was spent from the District's General Fund. In future years, additional funding sources are anticipated through Title III (Immigrant Students), EIA (Education Improvement Act) or grants.

The immersion approach is an effective and proven method of providing children with a well-rounded, academically enriching education and full mastery of both English as well as the new language. By all accounts, Azevada's immersion program and students are progressing amazingly well. Over time, 5th grade level classes will be taught 50 percent of the time in English and 50 percent in Mandarin. A successful immersion program depends on parents willing to commit to a seven-year cycle through elementary school (K-6).

Back in Orchid Wang's kindergarten classroom, vocabulary words are being reviewed in Mandarin. Chinese vocabulary is taught through songs and fun learning activities or games. Two students are selected at a time to participate in a vocabulary building exercise. A selection of words has been taped onto the whiteboard. Wang calls out a word in Mandarin. When the students recognize the Mandarin word from among those listed, they race to the board and pound the appropriate card using big rubber mallets provided by the teacher. A lot of giggles ensue, but the correct word has been recognized.

In turn, other students in the classroom get their chance at this fun activity. As a reward each team moves on to another board with a depiction of a castle. They must decide whether to move a marble up a step to claim victory, or to move the teacher's marble down one step, precariously close to a hungry crocodile. The class delights in having the power to make such decisions.

"Kindergarten is a new environment and language. Games help encourage the students to participate and apply what they know. Songs and movement make the language and concepts accessible. Singing teaches patterns and pronunciation, by using familiar nursery rhymes as a helpful guide," says Wang.

"It's fun and challenging but a lot of extra work [to teach the standards] in both English and Mandarin," says Wang. She spends a lot of her time searching for visual aids such as clip art, photos, videos, and creating power point presentations to reinforce what the students are learning.

At home, parents support and reinforce concepts taught in class. Even if they don't know the language, parents utilize an online resource at www.BetterChinese.com.

Azevada Principal Carole Diamond concludes, "This whole process is very exciting. Observing the students in class, these students are using the language. It's amazing! Those brains are there!"

Parents interested in registering their child should call Azevada Elementary School at (510) 657-3900 or contact the Chinese Immersion Parents' Council: http://cipcf.wordpress.com. Registration deadline is February 1st.

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