South Fork Elementary School Principal Richard Howard said students can’t get enough of the school’s Mandarin Chinese program.

Six years after its initial inception, the program — one of just 278 in America — has reached full capacity. The program is just one of three immersion programs offered in Idaho (Gateway School of Language and Culture in Boise is the second.) Rigby Middle School started its first Mandarin Chinese program this year due to more students taking Mandarin at South Fork Elementary.

The school district also has Spanish Immersion at five elementary schools (Farnsworth, Harwood, Jefferson, Roberts and Rigby Middle School.)

For South Fork Elementary, the program had 50 to 56 students per class when it started in 2013. During the last three years, the immersion program has reached its 60-student maximum at the kindergarten, first- and second-grade levels — with even a short waiting list, Howard said.

“I think one of the biggest changes is that it is more accepted now,” said Howard, who has a Chinese fan sitting on top of his office cabinet. “The community can see a value in it.”

The program has not only helped diversify the school’s learning environment, but it’s also improved proficiency test scores across the district.

Fifth-graders showed 88 percent above-proficiency in interpersonal listening and speaking, according to American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages testing data from Jefferson School District 251. Total proficiency for interpretive listening, reading and speaking across third-, fourth- and fifth-graders taking Mandarin at South Fork Elementary is 94, 86 and 100 percent, respectively.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages assessment of performance toward proficiency in language is a computerized test that evaluates students on standards defined by the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning.

“The great part is that they’re not only learning Chinese, but they use Chinese as a tool to learn new concepts,” Zhiyuan Zhang, a third-grade teacher who is in her second year in the program. Most teachers are hired through the Hanban Institute, Howard said. The Hanban Insitute is a non profit public institutions which aims to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries, according to its website.

Other teachers in the program are student-teachers who are on F1 Visas — visas provided to non-immigrants looking to study in the United States.

South Fork Elementary School staff and students have embraced the unique program. Clocks with China Standard Time can be seen in the office. Classrooms have signs and instructions in Mandarin Chinese. No English is spoken during school days the entire time students are in the program.

“I really like the program,” fifth-grader Libby Germer said. “I’m really shy, but sometimes when I go on vacations, I sometimes see people from China and I talk to them.”

Fifth-graders Germer and Jake Kinghorn have taken the language since it was first introduced in 2013 and will be among the first set of students who have taken the program all six years. They said the language is easy to pick up at a young age due to words having a more “pictorial” look.

“That’s what Chinese is based off of. It’s based off pictures,” Kinghorn said.

They said they will accidentally say some words in Mandarin at home or to friends — a sign the language is sticking with the young students.

Bilingual children have improved reading, writing, and math skills, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says. They generally score higher on standardized tests.

“It’s been a great experience to learn more about the Chinese language and culture,” Howard said. “I have a greater appreciation for anybody that learns a foreign language. Students have that chance to learn another culture.”

Luke O'Roark

Post Register