Kindergartners to get first taste of Chinese

Barrington School District 220 will begin a Mandarin Chinese immersion program for tots through teens next fall, now that the board of education has voted to accept a $1.5 million federal matching grant for the program for five years.
School board members had been mulling over whether to take on the financial and logistical obligations posed by the grant, which was awarded in the summer. They voted 6-1 to proceed at a meeting Tuesday night.
The district will be on its way to becoming the only one in the state to offer Chinese immersion from kindergarten through high school, said Todd Bowen, chairman of the  world language department, who secured the grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grants pays to start classes in the elementary grades, and while Chinese already is offered in middle school and high school, more classes will have to be added  to provide for immersion.
The grant requires the district to partner with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Chinese is taught, to give graduating Barrington High School students an advantage if applying there. And the district also must provide college-level Chinese courses for seniors.
“Our partnership with the University of Illinois will ensure that our students will make significant progress in a K-16 model of where they can become professionally proficient speakers of Chinese with a global vision of the world,” Bowen said Wednesday.  “It’s very exciting.  The board is taking a step for the future.
“The implementation of the elementary Chinese immersion program will be an outstanding opportunity for Barrington 220 students who will have the possibility of developing professional competence in an Asian language.  This program puts Barrington 220 among the leaders in language education in the United States and gives our students a chance to communicate with their peers on the other side of the ever-flattening global map,” he said.
Starting next month, the district will offer a voluntary after-school exploratory program for kindergarten students to introduce them to the language, Bowen said.  He said details still are being worked out, but it would be an early gauge of interest in the language and help with classes that will only be offered to kindergartners and first graders next year.
The classes will be at Barbara B. Rose Elementary School in South Barrington.  A grade level will be added each year until reaching fifth grade.
Busing, fees and selection criteria for elementary students wanting to take Chinese still are being worked out, said board president Brian Battle.
“We anticipate there will be more interest than the two classrooms for each grade,” Battle said.   “We have a demand from our parents for language-based programs.”
The grant will pay to hire a full- and part-time teacher, leaving the district with no significant costs for the program for the five years of the grant, Battle said.  Transportation could become a cost unless parents are charged a fee to have their children bused to Rose.
Board member Nicholas Sauer cast the lone “no” vote, expressing concern about taking on a new program when $2.8 million to $3 million in additional budget cuts may need to be made because of declining state aid and higher teacher costs. Last year, the district laid off more than 15 teachers and made other cuts.
“We need to cut the budget or grow taxes in a time when the private sector is contracting and family budgets are contracting,” said Sauer, adding the board does not know how the Chinese program will be funded once the grant runs out.
“My objections were based on that it’s a five-year grant, but the question is how do we fund it?  There were financial concerns and logistical concerns.”
While the program most likely will be successful and a great opportunity for students, Sauer said he does not feel it’s the right time to start it.
“We don’t know what the future holds.  If we don’t have the monies, we shouldn’t be dependent on a grant.  We don’t have the money right now to do it,” he said.  ‘Also, it’s a decision our future board will have to be stuck with.”
He also expressed concern over the possibility of an elementary student taking a few years of Chinese only to not be able to continue because the program ends. That could happen, Battle said, as the costs, number enrolled and other factors will be reviewed each year by the board and staff.
“It’s difficult for us to predict what the cost will be five years from now.  We’ve got four or five years here.  When the grant runs out in 5 years, we’ll see if (the program) has established itself,” among other things, Battle said.  “This form of education has some form of benefits.  We know that parents in this community have a desire for these language programs.”