Ohlone Letter to Palo Alto School Board

The main reason we moved to Palo Alto is for the public school options for SPL; the most compelling for us is a progressive school started in 1976 called Ohlone Elementary. Particularly compelling is a program within that school: their Mandarin Immersion program. For a lot of reasons I’ll maybe put into another post, we decided some time ago that it was important for SPL to grow up as bilingual (at least) as possible, and that Mandarin made the most sense as a 2nd language. Easier said than done, but at this point, at the age of 5 1/2, he’s reasonably fluent (we think), and we’re working hard on finding ways to support more over time. Ohlone is a unique program that blends progressive instruction with Mandarin immersion — it was started 3 years ago by some amazing people, including a friend of ours.

At the Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting this past Tuesday, the board took up the question of whether to change the status of this Mandarin program from essentially a startup to ongoing status. Even though we had literally just finished up with the movers to our new house, we wanted to participate, so I went to speak, and what I said, essentially, is that we moved here for the chance to participate in the program (it’s a lottery, so chances are uncertain) — and that it’s a critically important and unique type of program, but that it shouldn’t be unique. We need more kids getting more chances to build more comprehensive world views, and that starts with language.

Happily, the board approved a change to ongoing status for the program — a huge milestone for the startup program here.

Kathy & I also sent a letter to the school board prior to the meeting — I’ll share it below.

Congrats to Ohlone!

December 7, 2010

Palo Alto Unified School District Board
25 Churchill Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306

Dear Board Members:

After living for 10 years in Sunnyvale, and more than 20 in the Bay Area, my husband John & I are moving to Palo Alto this week to give our 5 year old SPL the best opportunity for an exceptionally high quality public education in the area. And the specific school and program we’re most interested in is the Mandarin Immersion program at Ohlone Elementary. I’d like to share a bit of background on why we think it’s such a uniquely important program to support – for our own family, for children of Palo Alto, and for education overall.

Neither my husband nor I have any Chinese background at all; I grew up in San Antonio and my husband lived in many states growing up, as his father was in the Air Force. I’m an educator and have taught science at several levels in the Bay Area and internationally. As a teacher over the last 15 years (and currently mentor teacher in East Palo Alto), I’ve built up significant theory and practice and have a strong belief in constructivist practice, as well as a strong focus on social-emotional learning, so you can see why we’re so interested in Ohlone generally.

For my husband, in his job as CEO of Mozilla the last few years, he’s been traveling and working internationally quite extensively, including helping to set up their office in Beijing and working to build their Chinese efforts since 2007. He’s now transitioning from his Mozilla role to a new one as a venture investor at Greylock Partners, and China figures to be a large influence in that role as well.

As you might imagine, once we decided that we wanted a bilingual experience for our now 5 year old son, SPL, Mandarin was an obvious candidate: it’s extremely relevant to today’s world. That was the idea. Figuring out how to give him a high quality dual language experience has been an extremely challenging enterprise. We were fortunate to have friends who walked this road before us, and they were able to point us to an extremely competent early childhood caregiver who was able to start with SPL when he was 3; at 5 he’s quite proficient in both Mandarin and English. So we were lucky as a starting point.

We’ve spent much of the last year trying to figure out the best way to continue Sam’s Mandarin into more formal schooling as he enters kindergarten, and it’s a real challenge. There are, of course, several private options – but only 1 of them on the whole Peninsula had a strong constructivist approach, but the Mandarin is not immersion, and that school is, in any event, very much in the formative stages. And there’s CLIP in Cupertino, as a public school option, but we believe it’s a significantly more traditional Chinese approach to education than we’d like.

Which leaves Ohlone. It’s a public school with an incredibly strong history. It’s got a focus on the whole child, including supporting discovery for each child. And the Mandarin program is immersive. That combination of characteristics, in our experience, makes Ohlone unique. That’s not something we say lightly, but we haven’t found any significant blending of progressive teaching techniques and strong Mandarin instruction in any context, let alone in a public institution. It seems to us a wonderful option for our own son, and one that’s sorely needed in an increasingly multi-cultural Bay Area and nation. And it seems to us that it’s an incredible example of modern, ambitious education that works, and can help others around the country follow.

For all those reasons and more we strongly encourage you to support giving the program a more permanent status at Ohlone and PAUSD. Thanks for your consideration and efforts so far – the program’s been incredibly inspirational to us as we find our own way.


Kathy Howe & John Lilly

One comment

  1. Fantastic!!!

    All four of my girls are in a French immersion K-8th program here in Kansas City: Academie Lafayette. Filled with teachers from around the world! It’s a public charter school, based on lottery (now as it has grown). They have been around for over 15 years (through MULTIPLE growing pains). I’m sure your friends at Ohlone have plenty of predecessors from which to glean wisdom, but if ever in need of more, they should check out http://www.academielafayette.org/.

    My eldest will be graduating in Spring (from 8th grade)!!! Hard to believe so much time has passed.

    Please be in touch!