Dist. 220 mulls teaching Mandarin at elementary level

Posted8/12/2010 12:01 AM

Barrington Unit District 220 is mulling whether it's the right time to embark on a program to teach Mandarin in its elementary schools.

Driving the discussion is a five-year, $1.5 million federal grant District 220 can have to expand its Mandarin instruction, which is starting its second years in the middle and high schools.


Officials said they'll gauge both logistical issues and the level of community support, before making a decision Oct. 19. Board members want to know if they'd have to return any or all of the federal money if they discontinue the elementary Mandarin program before the five years are up.

They also have to determine which of their elementary schools would be the best place to house the program for all the younger students throughout District 220 interested in participating.

If approved, the program would begin in fall 2011 with the first grade. Two classrooms of students would receive half their instruction in English and half in Chinese.

Each year after, another year of instruction would be added until the program reaches the current middle school program at the sixth grade.

Some board members were concerned that redistricting might be necessary if half an existing elementary school is ultimately devoted to this program, and what the public's response to that would be.

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Unlike a dual language program, which is divided almost equally between native speakers of both languages, the District 220 program doesn't necessarily expect to start with any native speakers of Mandarin.

The district is partnering with the University of Illinois in Urbana, which will begin college-level Mandarin studies for Illinois high school graduates who want to continue.

Northwest Suburban High School District 214 is just one year ahead of District 220 in coordinating a similar grant for Chinese instruction with its feeder districts and Harper College.

The earliest level of commitment District 220 is making to the program is to hire a one-semester teaching replacement for Barrington High School's world languages department Chairman Todd Bowen, so he can devote time working on an implementation plan for the program.


If in October the board decides to fully commit to the elementary program, Bowen would remain in a planning position for the entire 2010-2011 school year.

During each of the five years of the Federal Language Assistance Program grant, District 220 will get $300,000, which it will be expected to match.

But Bowen said the program itself doesn't actually cost $600,000 per year. There are many costs the district already pays - for building operations and the program's English-speaking teacher - that would be considered eligible for the match.

Bowen said the level of interest at the high school level is about what was anticipated, with about 44 students. The level of middle school interest has exceeded expectations, with between 60 and 70 students taking part.

Board member Tim Hull asked his colleagues to consider what an opportunity the grant is for District 220 and to commit to making it work rather than viewing it from a defensive posture.

"I feel very positive about this program for Barrington," Hull said.

Fellow board member Jeff Church agreed about the positive aspects of the grant, but added it is the board's responsibility to guard against unintended consequences.