March 5 2009 12:00 AM

A Chinese language program at a Lansing elementary school is so popular that the principal has asked for a bigger building.


At a time when Lansing schools are losing students — 1,023 predicted by year’s end — Post Oak Elementary School has too many. A Chinese language program at the school has grown so popular that Principal Camela Diaz has requested two portable classrooms to accommodate students while the school system mulls whether to construct extra, permanent space at the school.

“We have 25 students from other school districts,” Diaz told the Lansing School Board at two weeks ago. “Currently, we’re sitting at 105 percent capacity.”

It’s an interesting problem for the school — it offers a unique program in a city that doesn’t have a particularly large Chinese population (about 2 percent as of the 2000 census), at a time when the school district is losing students.

Diaz explained that part of the reason the program is so popular is growing numbers of parents adopting from China.

“When we started this program, we had one student who was half Chinese. Now we have a handful that are Chinese and a handful that are adopted from China,” Diaz said. “Parents are filling out enrollment papers before they even have the child, just to reserve a spot in our program.”

The program was started in 2006 by the Michigan State University Department of Education and funded by an $800,000 federal grant. The program works on two levels: two classes for Chinese immersion and two classes for contemporary study. The students in contemporary study take Chinese language for 30 minutes every day; the immersion students have Chinese language class for half of each day.

The program is offered to preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students and adds a grade each year. Diaz has projected that 40 or more students will be added each school year as the program moves up each grade level.

“To sit in the class and listen to them speak Chinese and correct grammar, it's just amazing,” says Nancy Romig, the Chinese immersion specialist at the school. “Some of them read in Chinese before they can in English; it's incredible.”

Amazingly, the kindergarten and first-grade programs take up four classrooms. Diaz wants four classrooms for each grade level. Moving two portable classrooms, which would come from Gunnisonville Elementary at a coast of $120,000, would allow the school’s needs to be met for the next school year — but the building needs to be expanded further.

Diaz says that either a second story or adding to the school’s ground floor would do the trick. She hopes to do fundraising to meet the costs. Potential benefactors include the Eastwood Town Center, the Confucius Institute at MSU and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming.

The school board took in Diaz’s pleas, but didn’t jump at the idea of building onto the school.

Board member Jack Davis mentioned that some of the overflow students from Post Oak should be sent to other schools that are experiencing population decreases.

“The families from other districts won’t go to a school like Grand River (at Grand River and New York Avenue on the north side) because of the area it sits in,” Diaz responded. “Whether we agree with it or not, this is a reality that we have to deal with.”

Board member Shirley Rodgers suggested that rather than expand Post Oak, an entirely new building for the Chinese program should be built.

“We need to build new buildings,” Rodgers said. “So why not build a building for the program?”

The board eventually turned the matter over to its Finance Committee.

There are plans to expand the program through 12th grade, Diaz said, although it depends on what can be worked out at Post Oak.

“I want what’s going to be best for the kids, the program and the district,” Diaz said. “This is a great program and we want to take it forward.”

(Correction: The print version of this story should have said that the program will eventually be expanded through 12th grade.)