Parents say LAUSD is restricting the growth of its popular Mandarin language immersion program

By Gary Walker

Jennifer Pullen, at left holding the microphone, leads a rally in front of Broadway Elementary School on March 4 Photo by Clio Van Ert

Jennifer Pullen, at left holding the microphone, leads a rally in front of Broadway Elementary School on March 4
Photo by Clio Van Ert

Supporters of a Venice-based LAUSD program that teaches elementary-age students in both English and Mandarin Chinese have taken to the streets in protest, claiming the school district is standing in the way of its own initiative’s success.

At the start of the school year last fall, former LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines slashed the number of seats available for kids entering the Mandarin immersion program at Broadway Elementary School from 96 to 48.

Calling themselves Parents for Progressive Education, many parents whose children attend the Mandarin immersion program — which draws students not just from the neighborhood but from throughout the school district — are now pushing hard for those cuts to be reversed.

The parent group held a large sidewalk demonstration outside Broadway Elementary on March 4 and came out in force again on March 8 during a meeting of the LAUSD Board of Education.

The parents say restricting new kindergarten enrollment threatens the program’s sustainability and its ability to attract new families. Going into the March 8 meeting, 41 of the 48 kindergarten slots available this fall had already been claimed by siblings of current Mandarin immersion students, who receive enrollment preference if they meet English or Mandarin proficiency standards.

LAUSD officials say there just isn’t enough space at Broadway Elementary, which is also home to a smaller Spanish language immersion program and two classrooms of traditional-curriculum students.

Parents for Progressive Education President Jennifer Pullen, a Century City financial analyst whose daughter is a first-grader in the Mandarin immersion program, isn’t buying it.

“When you look at the amount of space [at Broadway], there’s enough room for all of the programs through 2017,” said Pullen. “When you look at the amount of funding that LAUSD has, we don’t believe that it’s a financial issue.”

LAUSD officials say the district is committed to seeing the Mandarin immersion program flourish, but finding space for it has been problematic as the popularity of the program has surged over the last several years.

Broadway Elementary has fewer than 30 classrooms but added four bungalows last year to accommodate increasing enrollment in the Mandarin immersion program. The bungalows were meant to be a temporary solution pending construction of new Mandarin immersion facilities at Mark Twain Middle School, but Cortines scrapped that $30-million plan in the face of intense community opposition.

Following the demonstrations by Parents for Progressive Education, LAUSD officials have decided to grant the Mandarin immersion program two additional kindergarten classrooms — but not at Broadway Elementary.

“After careful deliberation, the district is moving forward with two Mandarin immersion classes at Broadway Elementary School and two Mandarin immersion classes at Braddock Drive Elementary School” in Del Rey, LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King wrote in an email statement. “This is the most viable option in light of space limitations at Broadway Elementary School.”

Pullen and her group argue that the classrooms at Braddock Drive Elementary are essentially separate from the existing program at Broadway and could jeopardize the cohesive program that parents and  teachers have worked to build.

“There is space for the two additional classes at Broadway. I know at least two families who have left the program because of this,” Pullen said.

A small but vocal group of Mandarin immersion parents operating apart from Pullen’s group has consistently called on LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, who represents Westside voters, to push other students out of Broadway Elementary and give the Mandarin immersion program exclusive run of the campus. Zimmer has repeatedly resisted.

Pullen said her advocacy isn’t about excluding others.

“We would not promote [the idea of] any other program losing their classrooms,” she said.

Zimmer said he sympathizes with Pullen’s group but noted that other special LAUSD programs have succeeded while operating on more than one campus.

“It’s very painful for a lot of parents, but other programs have thrived using this model,” he said.

Zimmer also took exception to claims that he does not want the Mandarin immersion program to succeed, noting that he supported an early effort to relocate the program to Marina Del Rey Middle School and was a driving force behind the Mark Twain Middle School plan.

“I don’t accept that [creating two classes at Braddock] is some signal that we don’t support the Mandarin language immersion program. That is simply not accurate,” he asserted.

How to accommodate increasing enrollment in the Mandarin immersion program has been the subject of controversy almost since the program began in 2007.

A large number of Latino parents whose children attended traditional LAUSD classes at Broadway Elementary held a series of protests after their children were relocated to Westminster Avenue Elementary School in 2014.

These demonstrations accused a small group of Mandarin immersion program parents of working to force neighborhood students out of Broadway Elementary so that the Mandarin immersion students — a majority of them residing outside of the local attendance boundary — could take over the campus.

Mandarin immersion parents who had vocally supported the relocation argued that enrollment of neighborhood students, many of them second- or third-generation Broadway Elementary students from Venice’s heavily minority Oakwood neighborhood, had been waning significantly.

Pullen hopes future dialogue will be less divisive.

“I’m a forever optimist. I want to focus on finding solutions,” she said. “All we’re really asking is for the district to be willing to sit down and help us make this program more sustainable.”