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California public kindergarten focuses on Chinese language instruction
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Robert Icart is an African American who has never been to China, but he decided to send his 5-year-old son to a public school which conducts 90 percent of its teaching in Chinese in its kindergarten classes.

Eugene Field Elementary School is the only public school at the Pasadena Unified School District in Los Angeles Country of California that offers Chinese-English bilingual immersion programs. In the picture taken on Dec. 7, an American student is writing his dairy in Chinese.

Eugene Field Elementary School is the only public school at the Pasadena Unified School District in Los Angeles Country of California that offers Chinese-English bilingual immersion programs. In the picture taken on Dec. 7, an American student is writing his dairy in Chinese.

"Here in the United States when I go shopping, I find most of the products are made in China, that shows me the importance of China and that has also encouraged me to send my son, Justyce, to the Eugene Field Elementary School," Icart said.

Eugene Field Elementary School is the only public school at the Pasadena Unified School District in Los Angeles Country of California that offers Chinese-English bilingual immersion programs.

In its kindergarten, 90 percent of the teaching is in Chinese and 10 percent in English, and in the first grade, 80 percent in Chinese and 20 percent in English, while in the second grade 70 percent in Chinese and 30 percent in English.

Now in its third year, this program has 4 classes and 110 students. The second grade is currently its highest level. As students progress through grade levels, they will ultimately reach a 50-50 split of the two languages they use in class by fifth grade.

Icart, whose parents were from Haiti and wife from Mexico, runs a basketball training institute which helps talented student athletes to get into colleges and universities including those of the Ivy League. He is now trying to prepare his son for his life success in a globalized world with China as a more and more important player.

"After looking into the economy and where it headed for, I found that Mandarin is going to be the most important language, not English," said Icart, who sent Justyce to a language learning center to learn Mardarin when he was four. The family originally enrolled Justyce in another school but changed their mind one week before it started after they learnt about the immersion program of Eugene Field Elementary.

Some of the kids in the program are Chinese descendants, but many of them aren't, just like Justyce. They are mingled together so that all students may excel in both Chinese and English.

No matter what kind of families they are from, the parents have homework to do -- help their kids practice Chinese or English. While some people worry that the students may lose their English advantage in such a Chinese-most bilingual immersion class, parents say they are committed to helping their kids to keep their English advantage through more reading and writing at home.

"The parents of kids in this school are committed to spending more time with and doing more for their children. That's why they sent their kids here," said Min Zhu, whose son is in the second grade.

Zhu is a Chinese while her husband is an American, so her family is admired by other parents as they can do both Chinese and English tutoring at home.

Kristin Tang, whose father immigrated from China to the Philippines and then to California, said her father didn't teach her much Chinese but her daughter did. Her daughter likes to speak Chinese, and is eager to teach the mother. "Say together with me," she always says before teaching her mom Chinese words seriously.

Ana Maria Apodaca, principal of Eugene Field Elementary School, said both parents and children think the program very positively and parents are learning Chinese right along with their children.

"The advantages the children are experiencing are great and they are very open to the new type of learning," said the principal.

The program is free, supported by an annual 300,000-U.S.-dollar federal grant. Jon Gundry, superintendent of Pasadena Unified School District, said that parents welcome the program and like the program to be expanded. It will double in size next year, he added.

Eugene Field Elementary is not the first Chinese-English bilingual immersion school in Los Angeles. There are several others, mostly run by a 50-50 language model in the instruction.

The immersion program will give students a competitive edge in the future. Icart, who is the CEO of his basketball training institute, said "Just think who would you hire if there is one man can speak only one language and the other speaks two or three?"

Besides, statistics show that bilingual students averagely have better academic performance than their one-language peers, no matter in math, history or other subjects. Schools offering Mandarin immersion programs consistently rank among the best-performing schools statewide. That may be part of the reason those parents sent their kids to the bilingual immersion classes.

"At the beginning, there were only 50 students (in this program)," said Apodaca, "So, it has doubled its size (during the past two years)."

The benefits the children get include not only language advantages and better academic performances, but cultural exploration. As bilingual studying could enhance kids' creativity, self-esteem and cross-cultural understanding, teachers often give the kids opportunities to bathe in Chinese culture.

In a recent visit by Qiu Shaofang, Chinese consul general in Los Angeles who brought Chinese books to the school, students not only got the chance to talk to a Chinese diplomat, but showed off their skill of speaking and singing in Chinese.

Qiu highly praised the immersion program of the school, saying the world is now a global village. Chinese want to go to the world, while the world people want to go to China. This year, about 1 million Chinese have come to the Unite States for a visit, while about 2 million Americans traveled to China. Exchanges need the help of language, and to learn Chinese from kindergarten would promote further exchanges.

He said the immersion program is different from the Confucius Institute run jointly by Chinese organizations and local people in many countries. It is run independently by the U.S. public school system and in his opinion, it is better to start Chinese teaching at kindergarten.

(China.org.cn, Xinhua News Agenyc December 10, 2011)

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