Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools has new fix for Mandarin magnet school controversy

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The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ oldest elementary school will offer expanded Mandarin language instruction, but as part of a new, broader focus meant to attract more diverse students.

Last year’s vote to turn Glenwood Elementary School into a full Mandarin Dual Language magnet school sparked controversy and led to a recall effort of three school board members, including the chairwoman. The recall was dropped when the chairwoman resigned.

Wednesday night, the school board voted to take the school in a new direction.

Glenwood will continuing teaching Mandarin but as part of a new magnet focus called STEAM², which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, math and Mandarin, starting in August 2020.

The new focus was one of several recommendations from a committee made up of teachers, administrators, a counselor and parents.

All students will take some Mandarin, with the Chinese language replacing French for traditional-track students. Students in a separate dual-language track will split their instruction time between English and Mandarin.

The committee’s recommendations emphasized equity issues.

“Enrollment in the [Mandarin Dual Language] Program has traditionally been dominated by White and Asian students,” the recommendations stated. “Additionally, current construction projects around the [Glenwood Elementary School] community may end up displacing Black and Latinx families in greater numbers than White and Asian families.”

The main proposed solution? Marketing the program to families who might not otherwise be involved and changing who gets priority for admission.

Originally, students who already spoke Mandarin would have had priority for up to half of the program slots, but the committee determined that this requirement would impair diversity.

It also found that many Mandarin-speaking families in the district choose to place their children in all-English speaking schools. Instead, students from “neighborhood segments determined to be economically disadvantaged based on historical free and reduced lunch information” will receive priority for admission to the dual language program.

The committee sought community input through meetings and a survey sent out in several languages. It received 348 responses in English, Karen (a language spoken by many local immigrants from Myanmar) and Spanish, and “STEAM² was the overwhelming top choice among the respondents, including among diverse families when the results were disaggregated by race.” The committee also considered Social Justice, Leadership and sustainability as unifying themes for the school.

“The Committee believes that the study of Chinese language and culture would help to unify the school with common goals, provide more students across the district with access to a critical global language, create efficiencies across staffing assignments, and maximize learning opportunities in a second language,” the recommendation stated. “However, Chinese alone may not have a strong enough appeal to attract diverse families from across the district.”

The recommendations estimate an initial cost of $248,000 to $373,000, depending on whether the program will require one or two new buses. The committee also estimates around $33,000 in new costs for year two of the program and $13,000 in new costs for year three.

History of controversy

In September 2018, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted to make Glenwood Elementary a Mandarin Dual Language Magnet Program. This vote proved controversial, and some community members accused board members Pat Heinrich and James Barrett of communicating improperly with pro-dual language program parents.

The district delayed implementation of the dual language program until August 2020 and formed a committee in December 2018 to evaluate the community’s response to the proposed changes.

Some groups were concerned the district’s focus on the dual language program was taking attention away from issues like the racial achievement gap. The Chapel Hill chapter of the NAACP was concerned the board didn’t listen to everyone impacted by the decision.

A group of parents started an initiative to recall Heinrich, Barrett and then board Chairwoman Margaret Samuels. Samuels stepped down in March.

Other recommendations

The committee presented several other recommendations to the board for the future of the program.

  • Using a lottery to manage enrollment

  • Raising class size for dual language classes to 24 students, since dual-language programs get a waiver from new state class-size regulations

  • Marketing to underrepresented families

  • Promoting biliteracy and equity training for staff

  • A revised instruction model that maintains an even split between instruction languages for dual-language students, but which allows them to switch between languages in different subjects

  • Aim to fill future vacancies with bilingual staff

  • Use bilingual signs across the school

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.