When the first group of students began the Chinese immersion program at Downes Elementary School in 2013, it was a leap of faith for the students, their parents and the teachers. With the first graduating class moving on to Shue-Medill Middle School in the fall as sixth-graders, that leap of faith has developed into a multi-grade program involving half the school’s students.
“I thought it was a really great idea, but I had no background of seeing it,” said Ariel Hardy, a second-grade teacher who has been involved since the program started. “They’ve done really well academically. I think that is one of the best things, besides learning another language, that you’re using your entire brain and creating all these neural pathways, which helps you in all different areas of academics.”
Hardy and HongPing Chen have been co-teaching second grade together for four years.
“We have seen big growth of the Chinese language ability. I have very high expectations for them. They have to listen, and understand and then speak, and do math problems in Chinese,” Chen said. “They’ve learned a lot. And they love the challenges, too.”
The immersion program began as an initiative by then-Gov. Jack Markell in 2012, when the state invested $1.9 million in order to reach approximately 10,000 students through K-8 Chinese and Spanish immersion programs by 2022.
Last fall, Delaware had 5,500 students enrolled in immersion programs, with 1,200 in Chinese immersion specifically. The students spend part of each day learning in Chinese and part of the day learning in English.
In September, Christina School District’s immersion program will expand to Shue – which began laying the groundwork for the program last year – and eventually continue to Newark High School. Of the 33 fifth-graders who completed Downes’ immersion program in June, about 25 will continue to Shue.
When MariaJose Riera and her family moved to Newark after living abroad, her son, Marcos Salvador-Riera, was just in time to enroll in first grade in the immersion program.
“I lived abroad and grew up in a bilingual household. Of course it was very exciting to me,” Riera said.
She added that she was wary, though, as her kids would be coming into a new culture after attending school in Spain. Still, she met with the teachers and learned more about the program.
“I loved the idea, and starting so young. But I was a little bit hesitant,” she said.
One day, she recalled, Marcos asked her if he was going to be in the program. Riera asked if he wanted to try it.
“He said to me, ‘Yeah, I heard that if you’re in the Chinese program, you only speak English half the day,’” she said, laughing, noting that Marcos had been nervous about his English. “He’s now fluent, that’s pretty crazy. He tested above grade, above the target. It’s pretty crazy, to be 10 and be trilingual.”
Riera, who now works at the University of Delaware’s English Language Institute, said she knew the importance of language.
“I’m very in tune with speaking languages, what it is to learn a second language and what it can afford you in the future, career-wise,” she said. “I’m completely jealous of my son. I worked abroad out of graduate school because I spoke Spanish. I know what it can afford. It’s really immeasurable.”
The idea of eventual opportunity is also what prompted Rob Smith and his wife to enroll their daughter, Hope, in the program.
“We just figured the way that the world is trending, her being able to speak two languages would be a positive,” Smith explained.
Smith said that it has been fascinating to watch Hope’s language skills evolve since she started kindergarten five years ago.
“It was an amazing thing. She maintained straight As all the way through. She really strives with the two language concept,” he said.
For Hope, it’s just really fun to do.
“I really like math, and doing it in Chinese is kind of now a lot easier rather than doing it in English because we did it so much,” she said.
She added that she is looking forward to continuing the immersion program at Shue.
“I’m pretty sure that in middle school, we get to learn social studies in Chinese. In all the other years, we never learned social studies. We learned math, science and Chinese [language]. This will be something new that I’ve never done,” she said.
Since rolling out the program, Downes has seen success in testing – landing in the 89 and 91 percentile in math for the two grades that were tested – and showing strength in Chinese proficiency.
“It’s proven to be a very effective, and a very wonderful program for the students,” said Fancia Tang, a second-grade Chinese teacher who joined the program four years ago.
Ling Li, who taught the fifth-graders in the program, said it is amazing to see the progress the students made.
“It’s really amazing to see how much they understand and how much they can produce their language,” she said, noting that throwing them into a full immersion setting forces them build up their skills. “They have to speak it, they have to use it. That helps a lot.”
As the program develops at Shue, school administrators have identified a sister school in China and are planning a trip there for the students once they are in eighth grade.
“For kids, I guess it’s more motivation for them to embrace a new culture and new language and learn about a whole new group of people and a culture,” Li said.