Mandarin Chinese the norm at Bellaire school


Your child may even tell secrets in a language you don't understand, he says.

That's a good thing. It means the students are learning.

Bordelon is leading a new public elementary school in Bellaire that will immerse mostly English-speaking students in Mandarin Chinese, teaching them to read, write and speak a language with growing importance in the global business arena.

The Houston Independent School District campus, which will open in August, is one of the first schools in Texas to offer a Mandarin immersion program and is among a small but growing number nationwide.

"We want our children to be bi-literate and bi-fluent," Bordelon said. "We want them to go into our library, pick out Harry Potter in Chinese and be able to read it and enjoy it."

HISD's Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School will open with pre-kindergarten through second-grade classes, starting the children young when their brains are better wired to learn languages.

The students will get half their instruction in Mandarin from native Mandarin-speaking teachers. Other teachers will reinforce the concepts in English. For example, students will learn in Mandarin how to solve a math problem, then will practice in English.

The school's approach, called a 50-50 immersion model, plus the uniqueness of Mandarin attracted Maggie Brown, who enrolled her two children for next year. Brown said she has seen firsthand that children need intense instruction to master a language; her eldest, a first-grader at HISD's Twain Elementary, learned perhaps 50 Spanish words in two years from weekly, hour-long classes.

"My kids are very excited," said Brown, who has been watching Mandarin videos with them.

About 160 students have enrolled in HISD's Mandarin school for next year, said Bordelon, who expects to add another 100 before classes begin. The school board voted last week to spend up to $440,000 to renovate the campus, at Gordon Elementary on Avenue B in Bellaire.

HISD board member Harvin Moore has been championing the idea of a Mandarin school since taking two education-related trips to China and visiting a program in San Diego, where Superintendent Terry Grier used to work.

"It's harder and harder to get into college and to get jobs," said Moore, who has enrolled his son, an incoming second-grader, in the Mandarin school. "To have a skill that's really unique and makes you smarter, that's a big advantage."

Bordelon, a 29-year-old in his first principal job, said he hopes eventually to expand the Mandarin school through eighth grade and to give high school students the option of taking college-level language and culture courses.

After spending almost all his childhood overseas, in Indonesia, Qatar and Venezuela, Bordelon has learned for himself how quickly language skills can dissipate without practice. He has lost the little Bahasa Indonesian he knew, held on to some French, and remains fairly proficient in Spanish and Mandarin.

Bordelon took his first Mandarin class at the University of Texas, attended a summer immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont and lived in China for a year. He said he became convinced an elementary immersion school would work after recently visiting campuses in Utah, San Diego and Washington D.C.

"The kids have been in the environment for six months, and they are singing and reading and having conversations in Mandarin," Bordelon recalled. "They pick it up faster than you would believe. Toward the end of the school year, they're telling secrets in Chinese. It's fascinating to see."

HISD has one other elementary school, Kolter, that offers Mandarin, but it is not an immersion program. Students there get 45 minutes of instruction three times in a week in the language of their choice: Mandarin, Spanish or French.

The Stafford school district started a Mandarin and Vietnamese immersion program at its primary school last year, and it now serves roughly 80 students in kindergarten and first grade, said Principal Kim Yen Vu. About half the students are native Mandarin or Vietnamese speakers, and the others are native English speakers.

Nationwide, there are more than 70 Mandarin immersion programs in schools, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. Spanish tops the list, with 239 programs, followed by French with 114.

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