Princeton Language Immersion School Trouble

Backers of Mandarin and English immersion school in Princeton, NJ, are encountering trouble with public school officials who do not believe an immersion school is necessary.  The complete story is from:

Carmen Cusido, “Charter School Backers allege interference State may give application extension”   July 9, 2010  www.nj.com

PLAINSBORO – Supporters of a controversial charter school that would be the first in the state to offer language immersion in Mandarin and English say public school officials are interfering with their efforts to open the school, something those officials deny.

The accusation came a day after an attorney for Princeton Regional and West Windsor Plainsboro school districts prevented a zoning board hearing on the charter school plan by successfully arguing that public notice for the hearing was insufficient.

Calling the move “petty politics,” Parker Block, a founder and spokesman for the charter school, said, “The school administrations are putting their own political concerns in front of the needs of their children. It is disappointing, but not unexpected.”

The date of the hearing, on Wednesday, was critical to the charter school group because they are running out of time to meet state Department of Education deadlines for a September opening at St. Joseph’s Seminary on Mapleton Road.

However, the DOE has advised the group that they may be given an extension, Block said. Plans are to open a Kindergarten through second-grade school that provides heavy instruction in Mandarin Chinese. Children would learn Chinese songs and stories in the lowest grade while being introduced to the language, then progress to discussions and grammar and usage instruction in Mandarin by second grade. It would be called Princeton International Academy Charter School, or PIACS.

While language immersion at very young ages is considered an ideal way to learn a foreign language, public school officials in Princeton, WW-P and South Brunswick — the three districts whose children might attend the school — have objected to having to share resources with PIACS, partly because they think their schools are already doing a very good job of providing a “thorough and efficient” education.

Hemant Marathe, president of the WW-P school board, has estimated his district would have to part with $862,065 for the cost of educating 75 students at PIACS for one school year. He has said that may weaken the district’s ability to maintain the quality of its educational program.

Yesterday, Beth Auerswald, spokeswoman for the DOE, said the decision to extend the deadline for PIACS to get a certificate of occupancy for the St. Joseph’s site is still under review. Before that happens, the group needs to obtain a variance and site plan waiver from the Plainsboro zoning board.

Area public school officials said they think the DOE should not waive its own rules and approve a deadline extension. “Those regulations were put forward for good reason,” said Judith Wilson, superintendent of Princeton Regional schools.

“When we sit here in July as the sending district whose taxpayers are footing the bill (for PIACS), I have to be assured that the places our children are going to are more than ready and in good stead,” said Wilson.

She said transportation fees will increase if the district has to send students to Plainsboro and add bus routes. The district’s issues with PIACS range from facility preparation and transportation and curriculum preparation. “The workload is heavy, and details have to be in place for students and parents,” said Wilson.

She said school officials have thoroughly reviewed the PIACS application, and intend to raise their concerns at the next zoning board meeting on the plan, which will be held July 19 at 7:30 p.m.

While Princeton Regional has opposed the charter plan since before the DOE gave initial approval in January, WW-P officials also have been lobbying hard to prevent the school from happening.

Before Wednesday’s zoning board meeting, attended by nearly180 people, WW-P board members sent a letter of objection to the charter plan to zoning board officials, and, in the process, mailed copies to state Assembly members; Bret Schundler, the state commissioner of education; and Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township.

“The state should not allow another extension. … Why are they allowed to cut corners at every opportunity? This is the second extension they’re asking for,” said Marathe.

The plight of the PIACS charter school is familiar to Maureen Quirk, a board member and founder of the 13-year-old Princeton Charter School.

Public school districts “are never happy” to see charter schools open, she said. Before her school opened, public school officials claimed it was elitist because 10 of the 17 founders had doctoral degrees.

“I don’t think it’s any easier now than it was then” to open a charter school, Quirk said, adding that she supports the idea of immersion schools.

“If you want to learn a second language very well, almost anyone will tell you that immersion is the way to do it, and the younger you are, the easier it is.”

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