2 preschools teaching in 2 languages
East Valley Tribune
July 9, 2008


Amanda Keim, Tribune

On the surface, it’s a fairly normal scene: Three toddlers crowded around a table with a teacher talking cheerfully as she supervises an art project.

But beyond that, it’s evident this isn’t a typical preschool. Chinese paper lanterns and kites hang from the ceiling, the soft background music features children singing in Mandarin and, while the students sometimes slip into English, the teacher only speaks in Mandarin Chinese.

This is Panpan School, one of two new dual-language immersion preschools looking to gain footholds in the Valley this fall.

Panpan, a Mandarin immersion program for children ages 2 1/2 and older, opened at Paradise Valley’s Kachina Country Day School campus in April.

Owner Amy Wang has plans to open a second location in Ahwatukee in September.

She’ll soon be competing with Bambini School, which will offer kids a half-day of instruction in English and half in either Mandarin or Spanish starting in August, said owner and Scottsdale resident Sean Diana.

Bambini’s first location will open in Glendale, but Diana has filed paperwork to open a second location at Scottsdale’s Bethany Lutheran Church in late fall or early spring. He’s also actively seeking locations in Gilbert, Chandler and Paradise Valley.

While they come from different backgrounds, Diana and Wang both had the same basic motivation to open their schools.

“I want children to have an advantage in our new global economy,” Diana said.

Diana is a former Paradise Valley dual-language teacher who is now working on his doctorate in bilingual education at Arizona State University.

He has coordinated after-school language programs at several schools throughout the Valley.

But the biggest spark for him to start a school to teach kids English, Spanish and Chinese was the birth of his son, Michael, who is almost a year old.

“If he can speak the three most used languages in the world, I think that will give him a great advantage in the 21st century economy,” Diana said.

Wang’s background is in finance, not education. But a friend asked the native Mandarin speaker to teach a group of adopted Chinese children the language a couple years ago on weekends.

She soon saw teaching kids a foreign language could be a full-time job.

She started making connections with ASU professors and other educators so she could do just that.

The biggest advantage young kids have learning foreign languages is they’ll pick up native accents more easily than adults, said Kellie Rolstad, an ASU education professor and linguistics specialist.

Young kids don’t actually learn languages faster than adults, although the methods used to teach children language — doing practical activities and using foreign words accordingly — are more effective than the lectures adults and older students sit through, Rolstad said.

“You don’t learn a language in a year or two of preschool,” Rolstad said. “It starts a foundation for language development.”

But if that language development doesn’t continue, kids will lose what they learned pretty quickly, Rolstad said.

Diana and Wang both have plans to address that. Diana is writing a proposal for a kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school that he hopes will open in time for the 2009-10 school year.

Wang is taking a different approach. She’s opening her second preschool at Ahwatukee Foothills Prep, an established charter school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and will offer language classes after school for elementary students.

It’s easier to run a true dual-language immersion program at preschools than the elementary level because private preschools aren’t subject to Proposition 203, a measure voters approved in 2000 that requires students to learn English in immersion programs instead of bilingual classrooms, Rolstad said.

Ideally, a dual-language immersion program has classes with half the kids being native speakers of one language and half who are native speakers of the other, Rolstad said. That way, kids are forced to use both languages to communicate with each other.

“Kids learn language from each other, not from adults,” Rolstad said.

“You’re trying to sound like your peers. You’re not trying to sound like your teachers.”

Rolstad has some experience with such programs — she opened a dual-language Spanish immersion preschool at ASU in 2002. But between new college students coming in to help facilitate the program each year and Rolstad being away from ASU for a semester, it fizzled out after about two years.

However, Rolstad would love to start an immersion program again when she has a chance to find bilingual teachers.

Even though they’re competitors, both Wang and Diana think it’s great two immersion preschools are opening at the same time.

Both said Arizona seems to be behind other states in offering immersion programs, Wang pointing to research she had done before opening Panpan, and Diana recounting conversations with families moving to the area who were looking for language programs.

“The bilingual program is getting popular,” Wang said. “In the long term you grow with your competitors.”