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State poised to OK school for Chinese immersion

Children would spend the bulk of their school days speaking and learning core subjects in Mandarin Chinese in a proposed charter school founded by parents and educators who say children need to master Chinese to succeed in the future workplace.

The state Board of Education is expected today to approve the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, where even math, science, and history would be taught in Mandarin. The youngest students, who are most easily able to pick up a language, would learn three-quarters of the time in Chinese; as children move to higher grades, they would be taught in Chinese half to one-quarter of the time. They would learn to write as well as speak the language.

Program leaders expect to serve a mix of students, including some adopted from China and others with no direct connection to the country, whose parents may be interested because they travel to China for work.

"In the future, no matter what career path you choose, you're going to see Chinese people, and . . . know that language is important," said Jean Pao Wilson , a parent from Easthampton and one of the school's organizers.

The school, which would ultimately serve 300 mostly English-speaking students, would be the first foreign-language immersion charter in Massachusetts, a spokeswoman for Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said. Driscoll has endorsed the school's proposal. Boston has three public dual-language schools, specializing in Spanish, but the proposed charter may be the first public immersion school using Chinese in the state, state officials said.

Most Massachusetts charter schools have some central theme, though many are based on broad ideas, such as good citizenship. At the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston, all students take six years of Mandarin Chinese.

The immersion school would be located in a yet-to-be-determined Western Massachusetts town close to Interstate 91, and would serve students from more than 40 towns and cities, including Amherst, Northampton, Agawam, and Springfield.

Founders of the proposed school, which would become the state's 63d charter school, say they have worked for several years to win support for the project from a diverse group of parents, local leaders, and educators. But they also have faced opposition from some local school officials, who say the charter would take away badly-needed funding from existing public schools, and may reduce their diversity.

Charter schools, created more than a decade ago as an alternative to regular public schools, have more freedom on how they spend their budgets and how they teach. In exchange for flexibility, the schools are expected to demonstrate high achievement. They face charter renewal every five years.

The proposed charter reflects a growing national interest in Chinese. Instruction in Chinese has become increasingly popular as China has achieved a higher profile in world affairs. The College Board added a Mandarin Chinese advanced placement program last year. Worldwide, more than 1 billion people speak Chinese.

"We live in a world where kids overseas can speak three languages by the time they get to high school," said Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department. So, the idea of immersing American children in Chinese beginning at an early age was attractive, she said.

The Chinese school would open this fall with about 42 students in kindergarten and first grade, and would expand slowly to eighth grade, adding about one grade each year, organizers said.

Yesterday, with no building and no final state approval, the school had already received 50 student applications, said Larry Kelley of Amherst, one of the parents involved in its planning. He said school leaders plan to use a lottery system to select students.

Kelley and his wife adopted their 5-year-old daughter, Kira, from China, and are headed back to China soon to adopt a second girl.

"China is a global superpower, and it will be for the rest of my lifetime, and probably my daughter's lifetime," Kelley said. "Ten or 20 years ago, people said to get ahead, you should speak Japanese, and these days it's Chinese. . . . But if you dabble in it, you're not going to pick it up as well."

Pao Wilson , of Easthampton, whose parents are Chinese, said she spoke Chinese before she spoke English because of her mother's efforts to teach her the language. Now, as she tries to speak Chinese with her two English-speaking children, she looks forward to a school that would make the task easier.

"I want them to have a sense of their heritage, and a sense of where they came from," she said. "It's not only their future, but their past and present."

School officials in Amherst reacted to the project much like neighbors of charter schools elsewhere in the state, focusing in part on the loss of state per-pupil funding, which follows students when they move to the new schools. Some Amherst-area educators also fear the new school would dilute diversity in existing classrooms if those of Asian descent choose to move to the charter school.

"There's quite a bit of language and culture in our schools, but the fewer students you have, the less rich it is," Elaine Brighty , chairwoman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, said in an interview. She previously spoke in opposition to the charter school at a public hearing.

Amherst school officials had hoped to start their own Chinese and Spanish immersion language programs, but could not afford it.

Jenna Russell can be reached at