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Immersed in a Quagmire

Parents, county schools administrators meet to straighten the course of the Chinese immersion program.

When the Chinese partial immersion program at Potomac Elementary School was started 12 years ago it was intended to be a shining example of interdisciplinary learning. Now, as the first students prepare to graduate from Winston Churchill High School, problems have cropped up and parents have raised concerns about the long-term viability of the program.

A survey conducted by a group of parents last month revealed that more than 60 percent of students who started in the immersion program have stopped taking Chinese. Most of those students indicated in the survey that they did not drop because they are no longer interested in the language.

At least 80 parents met with Montgomery County Public Schools administrators on Monday, Nov. 5 at Winston Churchill High School to discuss their concerns with the state of the program and its future.

THE REASON that their children are dropping the class, parents said, is not because they are disinterested in Chinese language and culture, but rather because of a learning environment that has grown tense and chaotic.

"I have one [student] in twelfth grade who quit and one in tenth grade who hates it," said one woman at Monday's meeting who declined to give her name. "He used to love it."

In Churchill the course is taught by one teacher across nine grade and ability levels, including honors classes. Grading policies are unclear and inconsistent, parents said.

Having one teacher in charge of all grade levels of a subject in a given school is not uncommon, said Judy Duffield, a foreign language instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools. It often happens in foreign language classes, as well as courses like computer science and music, said Duffield.

"It's not uncommon, but I think that what potentially is uncommon is that [the teacher is] teaching nine levels," said Karen Sees, the Churchill parent who put together the survey of Chinese immersion students. "She's expected to create nine lesson plans and differentiate between nine different levels throughout the day and she's not doing that."

One woman at Monday's meeting said that placing so much responsibility on one teacher was bound to have negative results.

"It is really unfair the position we have put our current Chinese teacher into," she said.

"I think the teacher was overwhelmed," said Karen Schick, a Churchill parent who helped Sees with her survey.

Duffield said that the number of students taught by Churchill's Chinese teacher this year - 109 - is less than the 150 maximum that teachers are permitted to handle over the course of five instructional periods in a school day. As a result, Duffield said that there were no immediate plans to hire additional staff.

CHILDREN AT Potomac Elementary who enroll in the Chinese partial immersion program are taught mathematics and science in the Chinese language, but not the language itself. The result, parents say, is a familiarity with the language and enhanced listening skills when they reach middle school and a more formal language program begins. In the 2007-2008 school year 137 Potomac students are enrolled in the immersion program in grades K through 5.

The transition to middle school, and then from middle school to high school, lies at the heart of the program's problems.

"There's definitely issues with transitioning from Potomac Elementary to Hoover and from Hoover to Churchill," said Sees. "If you look at the dropout rate in the high school itself, it's abysmal."

Immersion students take an immersion class in sixth grade and then are filtered into the standard one-period-per-day Chinese language classes with students who were not in an immersion program in seventh grade, said Hoover Principal Billie-Jean Bensen. They then continue in that traditional language course structure in high school. Schick said that the transition process at Hoover has improved in the last two years.

The first three levels of Chinese language instruction in the county's schools are generally completed in middle school and the first year of high school, said Duffield. They follow what Duffield referred to as a blueprint, which serves as the curriculum for those three levels, she said.

Beyond that it is largely the instructors that design the course structure for the remaining upper levels four through six in foreign languages, with the exception of Spanish and French.

In response to parent concerns in recent years, Duffield said that the county is working to design a standardized curriculum for levels four and five that will be in place for the 2008-09 academic year.

That leaves the highest levels of Chinese language students without a more clear direction.

"The process sounds really broken and we have students now," said one woman. "We can't wait three, four years for it to get fixed."

EXACTLY HOW to fix what ails the Chinese program remains unclear. Sees said that oversight is needed in the classroom to ensure that students are not in over their heads learning in classes of mixed abilities, and that lesson plans are differentiated.

Others said that hiring additional instructors at Churchill and clarifying the curriculum will help solve the problems.

School officials said that as they develop a new framework for the middle and upper ranges of the Chinese curriculum they welcome all input.

"If you know of some resources, please let us know," said Iran Amin, an instruction specialist with the County's schools. Parents urged administrators to look as far as school systems in Australia and Canada and as close to home as local private schools for guidance on developing the new Chinese curriculum.

The most unfortunate part about the situation is that the county has squandered the promise that the Chinese immersion program once had, said Schick.

"We just all feel like they've ignored us and totally dropped the ball on a program that could have been a gem," Schick said.

Amin said that the problem can and will be fixed, and that the program will ultimately be a success.

"It is our goal to make sure it can happen, and believe me, we are working very hard to meet that goal," Amin said.