Saturday, May 25, 2024

A crowd applauds a School Committee decision Tuesday making permanent the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School’s Ni Hao Chinese-language immersion program. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School’s Chinese-language immersion program is official, approved last week by the School Committee.

The decision was taken in two votes Tuesday, bogged down slightly by procedural questions, one applying a five-year federal grant to a the language program and the other approving the continuation of the program at the end of the five years when that funding runs out.

The votes were unanimous and unexpected — a surprise sprung on the crowd of King parents and parents of potential King students who crowded Sullivan Chambers in City Hall and took up much of the meeting’s first hour with testimony pleading for the program. Some of their testimony was emotional, including that of a Guatemalan father whose young children surprised him by speaking Chinese, showing how they were already benefiting from the Ni Hao Program in place for some 15 years at the K-8 school at 100 Putnam Ave. Other testimony noted the advantages of multilingualism in keeping up in business and science, including from many Asian-American and other international parents who have themselves benefited from fluency in more than one language.

Much of the testimony urged action so parents could be sure of their choices in next month’s school selection, and parents were pleased when the votes came two weeks early.

School Committee member Fred Fantini had been bursting to reveal that the committee was ready to make a motion and vote immediately, rather than consider the testimony and Principal Gerald Yung’s presentation and, following policy, vote the next meeting Dec. 21. His eagerness, and the certainty of other committee members, meant that the votes came even before Yung’s presentation.

Politics complicates, clouds votes

Clashing personalities and politics among committee members cast a shadow over the votes, though, with Fantini’s exuberance contrasting with the legal concerns of members Patty Nolan and Alice Turkel. Although Fantini was eager to make the official motion and tried, they noted that legally a motion should come from Superintendent Jeffrey Young, not a committee member and that the grant vote would normally go to a second reading at the next meeting.

After hearing Young’s motion, Fantini noted it sounded just like his.

Despite each committee member’s earnestness in being recorded as supporting a permanent Ni Hao Program, the hostile undertones were reminiscent of the previous night’s blistering City Council meeting.

“Wow, talk about politics,” Fantini said at the end of the meeting, as Nolan and Turkel tamped down the excitement briefly to make a motion locking in the votes. “Talk about politics, wow.”

“We’re actually following our rules, Mr. Fantini,” Nolan said. “Otherwise, it might not —”

“I doubt that,” he replied.

The district also has Portuguese, Spanish and Italian-language courses. But the Foreign Language Assistance Program grants recognize “critical need” languages that will benefit the United States in terms of national security. The text in the Federal Register explains the government’s interest in providing money for programs “that exclusively teach one or more of the following less commonly taught languages: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian and languages in the Indic, Iranian, and Turkic language families.”

The $6.2 million program anticipates funding up to 30 programs for between $200,000 and $300,000.

A statement issued Wednesday from the King School noted:

In his recommendation to the members of the School Committee, Superintendent Young remarked that “The Chinese Immersion program will offer great new learning opportunities for Cambridge students. I view this as the first step forward in an overall plan to strengthen our school district.”