Mandarin Chinese immersion classes to debut in Cabarrus district

Rising kindergartners in Cabarrus County Schools will have the option next year to learn the majority of their lessons in Mandarin Chinese instead of English.

The new SPLASH Mandarin Chinese Immersion Program will be the first of its kind in the county where students will spend 90percent of their instructional day studying core subjects like math and science in Chinese.

“It’s the best way to learn a language,” said Alison Moore, principal at Cox Mill Elementary School, where the new immersion program will be housed.

Next year, Cox Mill, one of the largest elementary schools in the system, will offer two of its eight kindergarten classes in Chinese.

Priority for the 48 available seats will go to Cox Mills families. The remaining slots will go into a lottery for other rising kindergartners within the county who can provide their own transportation.

Chinese-speaking teachers supplied through VIF International Education, designers of the SPLASH Language Immersion programs, will teach both kindergarten classes. New teachers will be added each year for first through fifth grades. All teachers will receive five-year work visas.

Two open houses to discuss the program are scheduled to be held at Cox Mill at 6:30p.m. Feb.23 and April18. Moore will be on hand, as well as Jason Van Heukelum, county deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction; Tara Nattrass, director of elementary education; and a representative of VIF International Education.

Van Heukelum, who spearheaded this program as well as two Spanish immersion programs in the district, said the evidence is clear that students who learn a second language through immersion outperform peers in other subjects as well.

“The research really indicates that kids that are involved in language immersion – this may sound overly simplistic – but they get smarter,” he said. “Their brains just develop at a different rate and they just become smarter kids.”

Reading and math scores of students involved in the 2-year-old Spanish immersion program at Carl A. Furr Elementary School have come in higher than those in traditional classrooms, said Van Heukelum.

“It’s pretty overwhelming; the SPLASH students are outperforming the non-SPLASH kids pretty significantly,” he said.

Next year, Rocky River Elementary School will also house a SPLASH Spanish immersion program.

Cox Mill’s Mandarin Chinese program will differ from the Spanish programs, however; the Spanish programs have both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students, so languages are rotated to every other day.

Because Cabarrus County schools have a small Chinese-speaking population, classes will be taught entirely in Chinese, except for 90 minutes of daily instruction in English literacy.

Language immersion programs don’t have everyone’s backing in the county. The school board narrowly passed both programs with 4-3 votes in December, with some dissenters questioning their usefulness.

But Van Heukelum said parents are shopping around for their kids’ educations, and often choose schools that offer something unique.

“They want something special. They are looking for a charter school or a magnet or a private school to tailor the educational journey for their kids,” he said. “We are trying to meet that need.”

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at