Language Immersion Programs Launch Lansing Students Into a Global Economy
Chris Bargerstock looked in the rearview mirror when she heard her daughter singing in her child seat.
“She was singing in Chinese,” the mother of 6-year-old Grace says. “It was amazing to me, and something I found so surprising.”
Bargerstock, like nearly 50 other sets of parents in the Greater Lansing area, is discovering the wonders of a new world through her child’s participation in a program offered through Lansing Public Schools.
Now halfway through its first year, a Mandarin Chinese immersion program at Post Oak Elementary School intends to ready students for life and work in the global economy.
“I’m thrilled to have this happening here,” says Post Oak principal, Camela Diaz, adding that she hardly dreamed such a program would take place anywhere in the U.S., let alone in a school in Lansing’s Groesbeck subdivision.
“It’s a wonderful shift to more global thinking. The kids love Chinese, and their Chinese teachers, too.”Granting the wish
Two years ago, the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University’s College of Education
received federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education
and U.S. Department of Defense
to help fund Chinese language immersion programs in Lansing schools.
The grants are part of a $57 million federal program to encourage the teaching of critical-need languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean.
Lansing’s piece of the pie amounted to more than $800,000.
Led by MSU Distinguished Professor Yong Zhoa, the MSU-Post Oak partnership began in 2006 and involved faculty and experts from the university and the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence
at MSU. Starting at the preschool level, the program was taught using a format with half the day in English, half in Chinese.
In 2007, the program opened up to kindergartners, with children learning letters, words, songs, dances, writing and drawing in both languages. In upcoming academic years, the program will add one grade level per year, with plans to offer it through high school.
“I believe we’re the only full immersion, 50-50 program in the area,” says Diaz. “We also offer other students two-and-a-half hours of Chinese instruction in the classroom.”
For Diaz, the big surprise was the enthusiasm and interest of parents.
“Some of us thought it might be a tough sell,” she says. “But parents were excited about multi-language studies at that level, and as they saw their children grab onto the language, they got very enthused.”Hooked on phonics
Bargerstock got hooked on the concept of early language acquisition when her daughter attended East Lansing’s 50-50 Chinese immersion program for preschoolers.
Her work in the Office for International Student and Scholars at MSU
also helped cement her decision to expose her daughter to other languages and cultures.
“I think language development is a good thing all around academically,” says Bargerstock, who never had the opportunity to learn a second language. “I would’ve chosen any language they were offering. It just happened to be Chinese.”
While Bargerstock and her husband, Burt, live in East Lansing, they chose to send Grace to Lansing for the language and cultural programs.
Grace’s school also encouraged Bargerstock to start her own Chinese courses at MSU during the evenings, and to attend Post Oak’s parent tutoring.
“Grace is teaching us things about the language,” Bargerstock says. “She has confidence, and feels like she knows something that we don’t.”East meets West
Lansing’s Post Oak program is among five districts statewide that offer immersion tracks supported by MSU’s Confucius Institute and U.S.-China Center. Beginning in Fall 2007, public schools in Lamphere, Berkley, Van Buren and Traverse City launched similar programs.
“Languages are becoming very critical as we become a more global society,” says Nancy Romig, Chinese immersion specialist at Post Oak. “Individuals need to be able to move across different linguistic and cultural environments, and have the skills necessary to adapt.”
One of her main goals is to prepare kids to be global citizens in the future. And the 50-50 model, she says, seems to be gaining popularity as a means to achieve that end.
Typical curriculums, Romig says, comprise three major components: language, culture and difference in teaching and learning styles.
Students spend half the day in a western-style classroom. During the other half, students switch to eastern-style learning led by educators from China’s Beijing University.
“One of the biggest differences is in terms of classroom management,” says Romig, whose role is to work with both teachers and parents to ensure the program’s success. “Eastern style teaching is more teacher-directed, and rich in content knowledge. In western style, it’s more child-centered.”
The goal, Romig says, is to combine the best of both worlds, developing students who are meeting content expectations and who are strong creative thinkers and problem solvers.
“Children are very fluid and able to bridge cultures more readily than adults,” says Romig. “These kids are like little sponges. You can throw all kinds of things at them and they absorb it so quickly. It’s phenomenal.”Global thinking
Although the area’s largest district with 15,000 students, Lansing schools have steadily declined in enrollment, losing nearly 4,000 students over the last 15 years. For Lansing, the Chinese immersion program is among a variety of new offerings intended to bring the city to the forefront.
It’s also part of an overall strategy, business leaders say, to attract and retain students from suburban districts.
“It certainly shows folks who may not live in this community that it’s a community that’s being progressive about and planning for the future,” says Matt Dugener, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership
(LEAP)—an organization that promotes business and economic development in the tri-county region.
A $6.7 million federal grant will enable the district to add three new programs to their magnet schools for 2008-2009: an international baccalaureate magnet program for grades K-5 at Post Oak, and “middle years” programs at Pattengill Middle School and Eastern High School.
Each, administrators say, will include Chinese language and culture components. Plans include bringing Spanish language and culture on board, with the launch of a 50-50 pre-school program at Forest View Elementary School.
“I wish it were three years from now,” says Diaz, “because I can’t wait to see our MEAP data. People want to prove that it’s working. To have those scores in our hands, and be able to say ‘look at what we were able to do and how cool that is.’ That will be a very exciting time for us.”
Ann Kammerer lives in East Lansing. She has written about area businesses, non-profits and people making news for a variety of local and regional magazines.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Views of Post Oak Elementary Mandarin Chinese immersion program classes and Chris Bargerstock helping her daughter Grace with her homework.
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie