Fired up for year of the dragon at Vancouver elementary

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Chinese New Year

Ben Franklin Elementary School celebrates the Chinese New Year.

Parents smiled politely while their kids performed a dance at Ben Franklin Elementary School’s assembly Friday morning. The first- and second-graders looked adorable, slapping their partners’ palms while singing jolly rhymes.

But most of the parents had no idea what their kids were saying.

The Vancouver students were joining hundreds of millions of people around the world in celebrating the most important holiday on the Chinese lunar calendar — the arrival of the new year.

And although very few of the students appeared to be of Chinese heritage, most of their songs, rhymes and announcements were performed in Mandarin Chinese.

Vancouver Public Schools’ Mandarin immersion program at the neighborhood school just north of downtown is the only one of its kind in a public school in Southwest Washington. Now in its third year, the immersion classes are so popular with families from all over Clark County that students are chosen by lottery.

The young children — the program started with kindergartners three years ago and now reaches up to second grade — speak only Mandarin Chinese almost every minute of their school day. This intense exposure to the language at such a young age clearly pays off, judging by the kids’ fluent performance Friday morning.

Dressed in colorful garb, the kids performed songs and dances one would see at a New Year’s festival in China, said Jean Archer, one of five native Chinese-speaking teachers working at Franklin.

In the morning’s last performance, young students wearing red headbands gave a no-contact Kung Fu demonstration. Swinging arms and legs in short, choppy motions, they barked out “Char” — “I’m ready.”

They are ready — for a world in which China is an important trading partner.

Head start for future

The school district, during a revision of its strategic plan six years ago, asked parents and businesses what additions to the curriculum they would like to see, said Christine Burgess, associate superintendent. The consensus was more programs of choice, especially in languages. Spanish programs were in place and Mandarin was the obvious next choice, so kids could compete in a global marketplace in the future, Burgess said.

Thirty-six kindergartners started in the program the first year. This year, 113 students are enrolled in Mandarin immersion.

Families from all over the district, and even from neighboring districts, apply to get in. First preference is given to kids living in the Franklin boundaries. Vancouver district students are next in line and are chosen by lottery. Out-of-district kids then fill up the remaining spots.

It’s a big commitment for the parents, especially those living outside of the neighborhood. They’ll have to drive their kids to school, as buses pick up only students within the Franklin boundary. And helping their kids with homework is quite a challenge, although support on video and audio is available.

Many parents gladly make that effort.

“I think it’s one of the most important things a child could have these days,” said Stacey Loy, whose son, Landon, is a first-grader in the program. “We’re giving him a head start for his future.”

Kids have more homework than do students in traditional classrooms, Loy said. All of their classes except English, P.E. and music are in Mandarin. They’re learning math and science in a foreign language. But homework is given in English in those subjects, so that parents can see what problems their children are chewing on.

The state tests in math don’t kick in until third grade, but district testing has shown that Mandarin immersion students perform well, said Layne Curtis, the district’s curriculum director.

Offering the immersion classes costs the district little extra money, said Marianne Thompson, chief of elementary education. There are no additional teachers — the ones they have just happen to speak Mandarin Chinese. They get paid on the same scale as other teachers.

Kids coming from outside Vancouver Public Schools bring with them the state allotment provided to districts per student. And textbooks bought for the program take the place of those the district would have bought for English-language classes. Teachers translate existing math and science curriculum for use in the Mandarin classrooms.

And they bring experience in a foreign culture with them for free.

Year of the Dragon

Hui-Chen Hsiung on Friday was teaching her class of first- and second-graders how to make small-business transactions in Mandarin.

“Duo shao chien?” the kids repeated in unison after their teacher — “How much is it?”

“Tai gue le!” came the answer — “Too expensive.”

The kids interacted in Chinese seemingly without effort. Hsiung taught them how to buy things in a store through role play, giving them plenty of opportunity for casual banter — as long as it was in Mandarin. And the kids chatted along, bartering over imaginary items, joking about a drawn image of a pizza and letting their personalities shine through in the playful lesson — again, in Mandarin.

All of them have been learning to speak and write the oh-so-foreign language since the first day they set foot in a school.

Culture, traditions

The teachers don’t just instruct the kids in pronunciation and grammar. They teach the students how things are done in China, about traditions in that ancient culture.

The New Year’s celebration in China — much of Asia, really — is like Christmas in Western society, Hsiung said. It’s the biggest holiday of the year.

Celebrations go on for several days, sometimes two weeks, Archer said. People who’ve moved to the city take trains to their rural homelands in droves. It’s a holiday that reunites families.

It’s a day to start fresh, too. Houses are cleaned, new clothes bought, Archer said.

Most Chinese do not place much importance on the characteristics attributed to each symbolic animal assigned to a certain year.

“It’s not like (Western) astrology,” Hsiung said with a laugh.

With one exception — the year of the dragon, which starts this weekend. The dragon symbolizes good fortune. Many couples plan to get married and to have children in the year under that sign, Hsiung said.

That’s one of the things that comes up when the teachers compare and contrast Chinese and American holidays during class time.

“We try to bring our culture and language together to give the children a sense of how the holiday is celebrated,” Archer said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen//www.twitter.com/col_schools.