In August, the West Contra Costa Unified School District will become the first public school district in the East Bay to offer a schoolwide Mandarin immersion program for its students. The new West County Mandarin School opens with three kindergarten classes in the Richmond Heights neighborhood on the Serra Adult School Campus at 6028 Ralston Ave.
Additional grades will be added in subsequent years. Students who choose to attend the program would begin in kindergarten with 90 percent of instruction taking place in Mandarin.
We sat down with veteran educator Eric Peterson, who was named principal of the West County Mandarin School. Peterson previously served as the District’s Director of Special Education. Before becoming the director, Peterson was the principal at Dover Elementary School in Richmond. Dover is the District’s largest elementary school which had more than 800 students enrolled while he was principal, many of whom participated in its bilingual Spanish program.
Q: What excites you about this Mandarin opportunity?
A: I am excited to bring Mandarin to kids that would normally not have this opportunity to learn the world’s most spoken language. More and more research is also emerging that shows the benefits of knowing another language. We are participating in an economy that is increasingly global and it is critical for us to prepare all our students to take part in that. I am particularly excited about the District’s commitment to equitable access to this program, whereby it has set aside a minimum 50% of the seats for students who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, English learners, or foster youth.
Q: How did you end up in education?
A: I am a third generation educator in my family. I started my career teaching special education in Newport News, Virginia and from there I taught for four years in rural Alaskan “Bush” areas where you had to either take a boat or small plane to get to. I also taught in Berkeley, Oakland and at the Boys Ranch in Byron before coming to West County.
Q: What is your experience with other languages?
A: I have earned a bilingual teaching authorization (BCLAD) in Spanish through language study in the U.S. and Latin America. I also studied Mandarin in college. In addition, I studied language acquisition as part of my doctoral dissertation. I have a passion for language learning and developing cross-cultural understanding, with a particular interest in providing equitable opportunities for all district students to become proficient in a second language
Q: What are your goals for the new school?
A: One of the first things is to create an exceptional school culture. An environment that is joyful and positive and where all students are growing, having fun, and being successful in their learning. In addition, my goal is for students of all backgrounds to not just excel in their learning of Mandarin, but for them to be successful in learning all academic subjects and in developing their social-emotional competencies.
Q: Why is Mandarin a language students in our community should learn?
A: Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language with more than a billion speakers. Learning it opens up a whole new world for our students and their families. Most language instruction in this country is targeted at learning languages popularly spoken in Europe and North America. By learning Mandarin, students will have a way to connect to a big part of Asia which will give them a greater opportunity as adults to compete in our global economy.
Q: What will be the curriculum?
A: Students in West County Mandarin School will be taught the California standards, just like students in the district’s English only and Spanish immersion programs. However, students will be taught much of these standards in Mandarin. Students will learn all the core academic subjects as well as art and music. There will also be a significant use of technology in the program, and all students will have access to computer tablets to help them in their learning.
Q: What about after school programs or extra-curricular activities for students?
A: After school and childcare programs will be available on a sliding scale basis for interested families.
Q: I don’t speak Mandarin, how can I help my child with his or her homework?
A: Our teachers and I will ensure that our parents are educated about the curriculum and provide parents ways to help their child. Parents may even pick up a few Mandarin phrases themselves!
Q: The Open Enrollment period for the District has ended, can I still sign up for the program?
A: Yes. We are currently accepting applications. You can also contact me directly if you have questions at (510) 307-4641.