First graders, having recently escaped from Sesame Street, spend a lot of time working on shapes and colors. So last week In inner Northeast Portland’s King School, 10 first graders were working, with intense concentration, to puzzle out the differences between a triangle, a circle and a square.
Except everything they’re saying, and everything written on the wide sheets of paper in front of the class, is in Chinese.
Nobody ever got to that stretch of Sesame Street.
This Wednesday’s Junior Rose Parade will feature a new entry: several dozen inner city kindergartners and first graders who are immersed in Chinese. It’s the first year of the King program, and the first time anything quite like it has surfaced in this neighborhood.
As parade entries go, it beats a clown car.
Portland Public Schools already had one Chinese immersion program, at Southeast Portland’s Woodstock School, with a sizable Asian student population. The King school program was spurred by a Chinese language program at nearby Albina Head Start, with teachers from the Chinese government’s Confucius Institute. Ron Herndon, head of Albina Head Start, pushed hard for an elementary school Chinese immersion program for AHS alumni.
The King program now has spaces designated for the Head Start kids, and also for kids from the King neighborhood, an approach that Michael Bacon, the PPS assistant director for dual language immersion, calls “trying to create a program reflective of the community that’s here.” As a result, the student roster looks a little different from similar programs; the largest group is African American, with about a sixth Hispanic. Immersion’s goal is to produce bilingual students, but King staffers point out that lots of students there are trilingual – speaking Chinese in the program, English elsewhere in school, Spanish to their parents.
Jessica Bucknam taught Chinese in two Portland schools for 14 years before coming to King. She trained as a high school teacher in China before coming to the United States to get married; she grins, “I came here for freedom and love.” She says the goal for this year was to teach the students 100 Chinese characters, but the count so far is 149. “They’re doing well,” she says of her students, “because they’re so excited.”
You could understand the excitement of parents, noticing world trade patterns, at their children learning Chinese. But what about first graders themselves, not typically known for thinking geostrategically?
Bucknam quotes one as calculating, “Not a lot of people in America know about Chinese culture. I could be the one to tell them about it.”
Or as Bucknam explains Chinese immersion, “It’s the 21st century. We’ve got to do it.”
There’s also another attitude, more common to six-year-olds. “They’re bragging about being trilingual or bilingual,” reports King principal Eryn Berg, “and well they should.”
With a momentum possibly driven partly by kindergarten street cred, King has 63 applications for 48 spaces in the Chinese program for next September. “Ronnie’s group has done a great job in promoting the program from their end,” says Bacon. “It’s been a win for us.“
For his part, Herndon, who has not been entirely uncritical of PPS over the past four decades, says, “Michael and his staff… kept every commitment they made to ensure the Mandarin Immersion program was established.”
Now, King has two Chinese kindergartens and two first grades, each doing half a day in Chinese and half in English, with the two halves blending into each other; teacher Alex Montfort says there’s a usefulness to math in Mandarin, where 20 translates as “two tens.”
The approach has also worked well for King, part of a strategy – along with a jazz band that’s also marching in the Junior Rose Parade Wednesday – that’s raised enrollment from a merger-candidate-level 190 to a robust 400.
Language immersion is a growing element in Portland Public Schools, with 26 programs featuring five languages across 15 schools, enrolling 4,500 students – close to 10 percent of the system’s entire population. The system is looking to launch three new programs – one more in Chinese, probably in outer Southeast, another Spanish immersion program and a new one in Vietnamese.
“Starting a new program is really bumpy,” says King principal Berg, sounding as though she’s still excited from the beginning of the immersion program.
“Then one day, about four months in, I walked into a kindergarten class and stood there for 20 minutes watching kindergartners speaking Chinese, and the hair rose up on my arms.”
At that point, she decided the program would work.
It seems worth a parade.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/31/15.