Teacher Zhijuan Dings readies third, fourth and fifth graders at BR FLAIM as they're about to start their Christmas performance on Dec. 18. These students recently learned that they they will be able to continue their immersion in Mandarin Chinese in the future at Westdale Middle School.

After years of uncertainty, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has finally agreed to allow children who’ve spent their elementary years immersed in Mandarin Chinese the chance to continue learning the language in middle school.

Consequently, fifth graders now learning Mandarin Chinese at BR FLAIM will be able to continue those studies next school year at Westdale Middle School. Westdale has long been home to foreign language immersion programs in French and Spanish, but has not as yet added Mandarin Chinese. By fall 2022, the plan is to grow the Mandarin program enough so it is comparable to Westdale’s French and Spanish programs.

“When they presented this, we were pleasantly surprised,” said Casey Meyer, a Chinese-speaking parent with two children at BR FLAIM.

BR FLAIM — short for Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet — started with only French and Spanish. But the popular magnet school added Mandarin Chinese in fall 2013 with an initial class of just 12 kindergartners. Six years later, that class shrank to eight fifth graders.

Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs, said with so few fifth graders it was hard to justify the expense of continuing the program to sixth grade.

“With just eight kids, it was almost impossible to do,” Porter said.

But Chinese enrollment in the lower grades is stronger, including 22 students in third grade, so Porter is optimistic a full-blown middle school program will soon prove financially feasible.

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While Porter said expanding Chinese to middle school has always been “up in the air,” Meyer and other parents say they were led to believe it was always the plan. They have pressed school officials for months to make clear the program’s future. They held meetings with Porter’s office in September and October.

However, when applications opened for Baton Rouge magnet schools on Oct. 7, there was no signup option for Mandarin Chinese at Westdale. Meyer said she wasn’t optimistic.

It wasn’t until a Nov. 18 public meeting held at Westdale Middle that she finally learned the program would continue on to middle school after all.

“We were shocked and very excited,” Meyer recalled. “It was way more than what we expected.”

Not only would someone be hired to teach Mandarin Chinese in middle school, that person would start in January in order to get to know the fifth graders before moving on with them to sixth grade. Also, the school system would organize a trip to China that immersion students could go on.

“I’m really excited that they are making an investment with the trip, and they will have a teacher who will follow them through,” Meyer said.

Porter said the school system currently has two candidates for the job, but it is keeping the job listing open until early January by which time it plans to make a hire. Ideally, she said, the teacher hired would also be certified in math or science, which would allow the children to continue to learn those subjects in Mandarin Chinese.

“It’s not easy to find a Mandarin Chinese teacher,” she said.

Once the teacher is hired, the school system plans to settle on the Chinese instructional materials it needs to purchase for sixth grade, Porter said.

So far, six of the eight students in BR FLAIM’s fifth grade Chinese class have said they plan to continue on to Westdale, Porter said.

Meyer said she’s no longer worried that her children’s knowledge of Mandarin will regress when it’s time to move onto middle school.

“(The plan) seemed adequate to me to retain the language,” she said.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.