An immersive language immersion program is showing educators how kindergartners are learning Mandarin Chinese.

In Overland Park, Kansas, a kindergartner at a rural school asked to go to the bathroom.  He asked in Mandarin Chinese.

Claire Pan, a teacher from Taiwan, pointed to corresponding characters as students sang a Chinese song about family. At Wolf Springs Elementary School, in a classroom with walls that feature “Chinese Only Zone” signs, kindergartners learn their core subjects in Mandarin, not English.

The Blue Valley School District has a new initative: graduating high school seniors who are fluent in a second language. The language immersion class is part of the effort that school officials believe will enable students to achieve fluency and have an advantage in pursuit of academics and careers.

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Teachers have been discussing changes in the foreign language program in the district for several years, including offering classes for languages that are not European. They realized that they needed to allow students real world practice and much more time in order to develop basic proficiency. There were concerns about funding, and about parent engagement.  But in 2016 the district obtained a grant  from the National Security Agency at the U.S. Department of Defense and hosted a 2016 summer camp for children to learn Mandarin.

“That was our toe in the water with our community to see if there was interest,” said district chief of curriculum Tonya Merrigan. “In under a minute we filled all of the slots. That afternoon we had hundreds of people on the waiting list.”

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