Jing Shen, a fifth grade teacher at College Park’s Paint Branch Elementary School, walked around her classroom, picking up students’ water bottles as she explained how to determine their various dimensions.

 Shen’s students listened attentively to her instructions, then broke into pairs and began working. Most students understood the assignment, grabbing tape measures and worksheets. Shen’s co-teacher, George Rustad, observed the class and was ready to work with students who  needed help.

Shen’s math challenge looked like any other Common Core math lesson in Maryland — except it was taught entirely in Chinese.

Paint Branch Elementary is one of 12 schools in the county with an immersion program, and it is the only elementary school that offers a Chinese program. The county also offers French and Spanish immersion programs, and enrollment is based either on a lottery system or districting, depending on the school.

According to Jane Tarwacki, the program’s instructional specialist, the county’s immersion program began in 1982 as part of an effort to help schools integrate students speaking a range of languages. The Chinese STEM immersion program began in 2012 and expanded to serve all grade levels by 2019. According to Tarwacki, the immersion program now provides educational enhancement and cultural exposure to some 3,000 students in the county.

“We have a study here, actually in Prince George’s County, that was a blind study for us that said that students in immersion are more college- and career-ready than their counterparts who were not in immersions,” said Carmen Henninger, supervisor of the immersion program. The study, published in June 2017, was performed by county schools program evaluation specialists.

Students enrolled in the program may earn the Maryland seal of biliteracy, and some students graduating from the French immersion program have gone on to attend college in France, according to Tarwacki and Henninger.

Though elementary schoolers may not be thinking about college, some reported that they have used their Chinese language skills outside of the classroom. Azim Donawa, one of Chen’s and Rustad’s students, said he was able to speak with a Chinese woman who works at a local grocery store. He has also taught his mother some Chinese.

Overall, the program is popular among students; they like learning a new language and about a different culture.

“I’ve never seen a kid that didn’t enjoy [the program],” said Rustad, who has worked at Paint Branch Elementary for four years.

Henninger credits the teachers for creating an environment where the children are happy and the program is successful. The National School Boards Association honored the program and its teachers, granting the county’s immersion program the 2022 Silver Magna Award in February. The Magna Award honors school districts that remove barriers to underserved students.

“I feel like it’s nice and deserved,” said Azim. “The teachers put in a lot of hard work to teach the students.”

Tarwacki and Henninger hope to provide more opportunities for students to use their language capabilities. Before the pandemic, students were able to travel to sister districts in China and France to use their new skills in a native setting.

“We’re just really proud to be one of the speciality programs,” said Tarwacki. “And we just hope that people continue to choose ours and really see the value in learning that language.”

Josie Jack is an intern with the Hyattsville Life & Times.