Fulton schools hope to profit from teaching Mandarin

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 Education
Steve Schaefer
Kailey Gillespie identifies shapes with the help of an iPad during her Mandarin immersion math and science class at Oakley Elementary School. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Oakley Elementary School does not just teach students Mandarin, it teaches them in Mandarin. A hundred students spend half the day learning math and science in Mandarin and the other half learning reading, writing and social studies in English.

Mandarin classes, taught by Yipeng Wang, are the best part of the day for Kailey Gillespie, 6.

“My favorite thing is counting,” said Gillespie, who can count in Mandarin into the hundreds.

Wang uses various technologies in his classroom, including iPads, a smart board and even augmented reality software (think Pokemon Go) to help his students. Technology enables students to create word associations without using English. For example in one classroom activity, students pointed an iPad camera at the Mandarin word for “square,” and a square appeared on screen, creating the link in their minds between the Mandarin word and the shape without an English word acting as a middleman.

“When you give (students) technology, it makes learning more fun,” Wang said. “A lot of students are thinking they’re playing a game, which is what we want them to believe.”

Oakley is the first and only school in Fulton County Schools to offer dual language immersion.

Parents chose Mandarin in a vote, according to Principal Latrina Coxton, who noted that it was the number one spoken language in business. Older students who develop fluency in a language can be eligible for scholarships, employable without college degrees and qualified for higher-paying jobs, Coxton said.

“When you think about what we’re doing here in Fulton, with our district strategic initiative of having students college and career ready, we’re really starting our kids on that track at the elementary school level,” she said.

Immersion classes produce higher language proficiency than traditional language instruction and improves attention, memory, problem-solving skills and cultural awareness, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Students in immersion classes have higher standardized test scores and attendance and lower drop-out rates than non-immersion students, studies show.

“(Dual language immersion) in Georgia is very new, so a lot of the data is still being collected on this,” said Patrick Wallace, the state Department of Education program specialist for World Languages and Global Work Initiatives. “However, our initial data is very positive.”

Language immersion arrived in Georgia in 2007 at Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park. Today, 38 schools offer it. The majority, 31, offer it in Spanish, but others offer Mandarin, German and French.

Oakley started its program last year with 50 kindergarten students, and it is adding a grade level each year. By the time the program is fully implemented, one-third of its students will be in the immersion classes.

The students will continue at Bear Creek Middle School and Creekside High School. If students complete the dual language immersion path from kindergarten through high school, they will graduate with enough credit to earn a college minor in Mandarin.

Students are chosen for the program by lottery. There is a waiting list for Oakley’s Kindergarten and first grade immersion classes, Coxton said.

Wang teaches math and science in Mandarin to Oakley’s kindergarten students. After teaching Mandarin elsewhere for eight years, he was excited by the opportunity to teach math, his passion.

“It was a huge transition,” he said. “The only way I was able to make it through is because we have such a wonderful team and staff over here.”

The school provided Wang with coaching and training to help him understand the needs of elementary school students, the demands of Georgia’s math and science standards and instructional techniques for math and science.

Coxton hopes Oakley will be a model for other Fulton school immersion programs. Some Fulton schools will offer English language immersion programs for Spanish-speaking students next year, according to Fulton Program Specialist Jamie Patterson.

Wallace, the state program specialist, sees language instruction as critical to drawing international businesses to Georgia and increasing Georgia’s exports.

Said Wallace, “I think we can only benefit ourselves by offering more world language opportunities.”

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