A debate between two parental factions about the future of the Mandarin dual language program in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools brought nearly 100 people out to the Board meeting Thursday night at Chapel Hill High.

Tina CoyneSmith came out to Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting to represent the Seawell Elementary Improvement Team:

“It would be irresponsible and grossly inequitable to invest a shrinking budget in a luxury program that benefits a small, high-achieving group without identified need,” she said.

Tim Field, who has three kids in both the traditional and dual-language programs at Glenwood Elementary, raised objections to how the school system engaged the community on the issue.

“Let’s have a real dialogue about what it would take to actually make this a wildly successful program, not a dialogue driven by fear and anxiety about over-inflated program costs,” said Field.

Not even five months after the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education voted 6-1 to expand the Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood Elementary School, the fate of the program — or, at least, its future implementation — is still uncertain in a continuing climate of State cuts to public schools.

Supporters of the program argue that it promotes high achievement, and makes kids more competitive on a global scale.

The opposing side argues that it’s unconscionable to continue to support a program for a small number of students, while it continues to suffer from attrition, and while the jobs of teachers’ assistants are on the chopping block.

Parents and even some kids enrolled in the program made their cases either way for than two hours at the meeting. But there wasn’t much enthusiasm from either side regarding two options being considered by the Board.

Option One is a Mandarin Partial Immersion Magnet, with a focus on developing proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.

The current 50/50 language ratio that requires half the students to be native Mandarin speakers would be relaxed.

Superintendent Tom Forcella pointed out during the meeting that native Mandarin speakers are the main students dropping out of the program in the upper grades, which makes the program harder to sustain.

Under Option One, the program would remain at Glenwood Elementary School, and would require the redistricting of all students on the traditional track.

Option Two would bring Mandarin into the Foreign Language in the Elementary School, or FLES program. That would involve offering Spanish at six schools, French at two schools, and Mandarin at three schools.

Proponents of that option argue that it would return the program to its original intent – to promote Mandarin proficiency, and offer it to a more diverse population.

CHCCS Dual/World Language Coordinator Elaine Watson-Grant made a recommendation between the two options during a presentation at Thursday night’s meeting.

“We believe that it should be accessible to many more students in our districts, not just a few” said Watson-Grant. “The administration proposes Option Two – expanding Mandarin into our FLES program, starting in kindergarten.”

But some Board members, such as Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford, aren’t in favor of bringing Mandarin into FLES.

“The goal of our Mandarin and our Spanish programs that are dual-language or immersion is to become bilingual – to become fluent,” said Bedford. “And FLES – just passing it – that’s never going to get us there.”

Thursday night’s discussion of the Mandarin program was a work session, and no vote was taken on the matter.

Board members, still reeling from further education cuts in the State Senate’s draft budget, agreed that the fate of the Mandarin dual language program will ultimately be determined by Orange County and the General Assembly.

In the meantime, the CHCCS Board needs to determine the lottery ratio system for students enrolling in the Mandarin program in the coming year.

The Board will hear a recommendation on the lottery on June 11.