Menlo Park: More than 200 at hearing on Mandarin school


A public hearing on a Mandarin immersion charter school that has been proposed in the Menlo Park City School District drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people on Tuesday night, Oct. 14.

The district's board has a little less than a month before it must decide whether to authorize the proposed charter school. Charter founders want to start with 100 total students in two classes each of kindergarteners and first-graders in the fall of 2015, expanding by one grade level each year with the ultimate goal of a K-8th grade school with 450 students.

There was lots of applause, and even a few standing ovations, on both sides of the issue as the audience had a chance to talk about why they do, or do not, support the petition for the proposed charter school.

A longtime Menlo Park resident and former district science teacher made a plea for civility in the debate. "We want to model how we want our children to behave," said Nancy Rankin. Ms. Rankin said she was "chilled" by some negative online posts about the charter founders. "Change is scary," she said. "That fear often turns to anger and anger sometimes can be very destructive."

Carol Cunningham, a district resident and mother of a kindergartener and preschooler, made a presentation about the school to lead off the hearing. "The founders of the Menlo Mandarin Immersion Charter School are here tonight because we ultimately believe in having the freedom of choice and expanded opportunities for Menlo Park families when it comes to public education," she said.

That idea did not sit well with several teachers who spoke. "I believe the children of parents in Menlo Park have many choices in the types of educational opportunities that are offered," including Spanish immersion, art, music, PE, librarians, science labs, multi-age learning and school gardens, said Sheila Warren, a librarian at Laurel School and co-president of the Menlo Park Education Association. "We are continually striving to be better and are continually meeting our goals for high achievement," Ms. Warren said. "We set the bar high and we go after it."

But Ms. Cunningham said the state's charter law does not require charters be only in troubled districts. "Nowhere in the law does it state that charters were intended to benefit only poor-performing, failing or struggling public school districts. Charters are intended to benefit all kids," Ms. Cunningham said.

Several speakers urged the charter backers to withdraw their petition. "I really invite, request, beseech, beg, the Mandarin immersion charter advocates to reconsider and withdraw their petition and work within our community to bring about the change that we all are interested in, in improving and expanding foreign language opportunities for our children," said Neil Swartzberg, a district parent. "Specifically in the context of the charter school law, while they may, and I'll stress may, be legally entitled to pursue and even potentially obtain a charter school, just because you can do this under the law doesn't mean that you have to actually, in our community, pursue it."

Other parents said they worry the charter will take money from the district's existing programs. "I am very concerned about the introduction of a charter school into our district," said Sydney Merk. "I worry about our district not having control of a program that would be draining resources from our kids."

But Ms. Cunningham said that because the charter school would require less money per pupil from the district than is currently spent educating each student, the district would not lose money as long as fewer than 50 percent of the charter students come from outside the district.

"With the data that we know today, such as the district's over-enrollment situation, the financial impact will likely be inconsequential to beneficial," she said. "These are still district kids that will need space, anyway."

The grounds on which the district board can make a decision on the charter school are limited by the state law, and some of the speakers tried to give the board some of those reasons to use. One of the grounds is whether or not the school is likely to succeed in implementing the program outlined in its petition.

"I do not think the charter will be successful if it does not have the support of our community," said Caryn Wasserstein, a district parent. She and other parents started their own petition in opposition to the school on Oct. 6 and by Oct. 14 had more than 1,000 signatures, she said. "The support of the community is just not there."

Arlina Ahluwalia said she supports the charter school. "We should embrace this group's proposal," she said.

A similar program in Palo Alto has far more applicants than it has room for and Menlo Park's Spanish immersion program turns down two out of three applicants, Ms. Ahluwalia said. "Let the charter take a bunch of district kids off the district roster," she said. "Don't let doors close for our Menlo Park kids."

If the district board turns down the charter, backers may appeal to the county school board, and if that fails, to the state board of education.

The district has scheduled a study session focusing on the charter proposal at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 27, in the district office TERC Building, 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton. The board is scheduled to make its final decision on the proposal at a meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 12, in the same location. That meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. The districts has a list of frequently asked questions and answers on the proposal on its website as well as a copy of the Menlo Mandarin Immersion School petition.

Opponents of the project have a petition at

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10 people like this
Posted by Andrew Becker
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 16, 2014 at 12:09 pm

I was in attendance at the Board Meeting described by Barbara Woods, although I was not a speaker. Her reporting implies that there were a significant number of supporters of the Charter School present and willing to speak at the meeting. The vast majority of speakers, not just teachers, were opposed to the Charter School application, without discussing the details of their arguments.

I believe that in an effort to remain impartial, which she should, Ms. Woods is in fact overstating the apparent support for the Charter School among parents with children in the district. Based on the petition, which she mentioned, and the large number of negative comments that I heard at the meeting and the timing of applause, the implication of broad support is inaccurate.

Andy Becker

2 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Oct 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm

I didn't have an opportunity to attend but I would like to know how many of the "proponents" actually have children in the Menlo Park School district. Is there really a pressing desire amongst a relevant number of district parents to have such a charter school?

If there isn't such a requisite number, is this a back door just to get a couple of classrooms on one MPCSD's already impacted schools?

This just strikes me as a bad idea all around.

2 people like this
Posted by Taxation Without Representation
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm

The MPCSD Board of Education is supposed to represent parents and community members, but it does not. It is a closed club that works in lock-step with the administration. The members work hard, for sure, but they are not representative and often are just the opposite. As long as people don't have a voice in school district decisions, this sort of movement is bound to occur.

If the charter school organizers have data to support their claim that at least 50 students from Menlo Park want a Mandarin Immersion program, the district should have been open to offering one -- or at least have a factual, good faith study session open to the public. But they chose to shut the parents down the way they always do. So here we are, and instead of the school district providing educational choice they will fund a school that, by design, doesn't have to answer to the public. Brilliant.

4 people like this
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Who really believes that the majority of the students will live in MPCSD boundaries? I think there will be more students from PAUSD, the Atherton residents of RCSD, PVSD and LASD than MP students. Can MPCSD really afford to provide specialized education for non-district students when proposed housing developments will increase the needs of an already over-crowded system?

5 people like this
Posted by Menlo parent
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I agree this is not accurate reporting. Large majority of attendees was against the proposal. I was there.

4 people like this
Posted by Doug Dietz
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm

The article below reports the sentiment of the crowd a bit more accurately:

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Oct 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm

The petition to the MPCSD Board to deny the charter school can actually be found on and is still open.

11 people like this
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm

I personally think the Charter School petition is simply a "threat" to convince the Menlo Park BOE to start a Mandarin Immersion program. PAUSD was asked to start an MI program, the Board refused, the supporters threatened to start a charter school and guess what, Palo Alto has a elementary Mandarin Immersion program. Ironically, the first class of students graduate from 5th grade last year and there was not enough continued interest on the part of the graduates parents to warrant an after school Mandarin class in 6th grade.

10 people like this
Posted by totally correct
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2014 at 10:58 am

@Palo Alto Parent is totally correct. Charter law is written in such a way that it empowers this group of 100 or so families to extract through with legal force concessions from their school board that the board might not otherwise be willing or able to provide. It puts the wants of a few above the democratic will of the entire community. The palo alto and los altos examples are proof enough of this. Any time a small group wants to turn their pet extra-curricular fancy into a core programmatic feature of their children's education, they leverage charter law to nullify democracy and take it by force. This is not a joke. This is how monied Type-A parents defect from true public education, taking their share of community property taxes with them. It's a machine.

7 people like this
Posted by Aaron
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Aaron is a registered user.

@ Taxation without representation,

The MPCSD board reviewed the request for Mandarin Immersion program in our schools. My understanding of that decision was that the board, while receptive to the idea, did not think it was the right time to pursue it further for the district. Some of the reasons for this decision may be:

1) The MPCSD is currently focused on rolling out Common Core. This is a huge undertaking, introducing a whole new philosophy around teaching across our schools.

2) The MPCSD is currently building the new Laurel school on the old O'Connor site. This is yet another huge undertaking for the school district.

3) The Spanish Immersion program is undergoing its first evaluation, after 5 years of implementation. This evaluation will give the MPCSD better insight into what has worked in the program and what hasn't. Such an evaluation will be valuable not only for the Spanish Immersion program, but for the district's future plans on foreign language instruction and other immersion programs. Starting a new immersion program before the evaluation of the current one has been completed is like putting the cart before the horse.

4) The district discontinued its language for all programs due to tight funding during the most recent recession. It seems a priority would be to re-start such programs if the funds become available.

Just because the MPCSD board said "not at this time" to Mandarin immersion, doesn't mean they irrationally shut the parents down. We all want what is best for our children and our community, but just because we want some things doesn't mean that they must be provided for us. Maybe we'll be able to incorporate Mandarin immersion in two years, or maybe five years, or maybe ten. In the meantime, there are private-school options for Mandarin language instruction and immersion within 15 minutes of Menlo Park/Atherton.

I understand the urgency and the drive of the people behind the charter school petition. I know that when you invest a lot into something, it's hard not to take criticism and adverse opinions personally. But I hope they will understand that the opposition against the charter is not opposition to them or their desire to provide what they believe is the best possible setting for their children's education. We want them to be welcome in the MPCSD community, and we want to work with them to support their goals for their children's education within our existing school system. Many of us support their wish to see a Mandarin Immersion program started in our schools, and would be happy to work with them to try to make this happen in the coming years. What many don't support is a separate charter school that may have a negative impact on our district and our community.

As an aside, in response to one of the article's quotes from Carol Cunningham, the Charter School Act of 1992 clearly states that it is the intent of the CA Legislature that charter schools "Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving." I am not a lawyer, so I cannot say how charter schools like Bullis Charter School have been able to satisfy this part of the law's intent and still gain their charter, but I wanted to point out that it is stated rather clearly.

Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Oct 17, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Can we get some full disclosure and tell us how many of the opponents were either unionized teachers, retired scrooges, or racists yahoos? What good does it do to implement a kindergarten program in 10 years if you child is already born?

3 people like this
Posted by Stephanie
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Oct 17, 2014 at 11:39 pm

James: The majority of the opponents were parents of children in the District and/or entering the District in the next few years. Many of the opponents have years of experience in our schools as parent volunteers, organization leaders, and fundraisers. They are the people who know our schools and our District, and have spent many years as part of our school community. If you'd been there, you would know that.

4 people like this
Posted by Hearing Attendee who cares about accuracy and fairness
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 18, 2014 at 3:14 pm

I attended the public hearing and completely agree that this article misrepresents what took place.
You failed to report on the much larger number of opposing comments vs. supporting comments.
You failed to quote or mention many of the compelling and valid arguments that were articulated by numerous opponents of the proposed school.

In addition to that, your article gives much more weight to Mrs. Cunningham's arguments and those of supporters of the proposed charter school.

Although I am opposed to the school, I'm not criticizing your article because it doesn't support my opinion, but because it is inaccurate and misleading.

The Mercury News article is more accurate and fair:
Web Link

Perhaps the bias in your article was unintentional.
If so, you should revise your article to make it more accurate.

6 people like this
Posted by object to James
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Oct 18, 2014 at 9:39 pm

" ... unionized teachers, retired scrooges, or racists yahoos?"
Sure, let's go with civil words, shall we @James?

I can assure you that I am not union, not a teacher, not retired, not a scrooge, not racist, and not a yahoo. I am a MPCSD parent who has taken the time to get to know Laurel, Encinal, and Hillview schools ... and the district. I am very pro-multi-language. However, I am fiscally responsible enough to know that our schools are working hard to make a success, and learn from the mistakes, and make adjustments on the FIRST immersion program, which happens to be Spanish-based. I'm happy it's there, and I'm happy that the district is not wasting money making the same mistakes x2 or x3 languages. Let's learn from the Spanish as a start. Let's learn from Palo Alto and Los Altos. THEN let's decide what makes sense for THIS community, AS a community. Let's NOT act or react in fear.

2 people like this
Posted by MPCSD Parent2
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm

For the approximately $7000 in per pupil funding that MPCSD would pay for the proposed charter, MPCSD would get:
(1) $0 reimbursed for every out-of-district student from another Basic Aid district (e.g. Palo Alto), and
(2) only 70 cents reimbursed for every out-of-district student from a Revenue Limited District (e.g. Redwood City).
These figures are especially troubling since at least 30% of the parents who signed the charter petition are from out-of-district.

The charter school proponents have seemingly hijacked an existing (and flawed) power structure to achieve their own interests (interests of a very few).
The charter school proponents seem to have no problem going outside of the MPCSD community to push through the reform they were not able to achieve by working within the MPCSD community (on a reasonable, albeit not necessarily rushed, schedule).
The charter school proponents seem willing to do this at whatever cost.

As reported in the San Jose Mercury News, at the October 14th MPCSD public hearing, Thomas Suedoff, a Nobel Laureate and a founder of the proposed charter school, said that he "believed by creating this opportunity offered... that this would be constructive." However, Suedoff then recognized that "Clearly it [the proposed charter school] is not seen so.... This is truly not what we want...." See Web Link

Despite the concession that the MPCSD community does not see the charter foisted upon them as "constructive," and the acknowledgment that the MPCSD community's reaction "is truly not what we [the charter school proponents] want" are Suedoff and the other charter school proponents withdrawing the charter school petition and seeking to provide the MPCSD community with an approach that is actually viewed as "constructive"?
Or, are Suedoff and the other charter school proponents moving full-steam ahead with utterances of "Oh well, don't worry, it will be good for you"?

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Posted by Menlo Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 20, 2014 at 8:46 pm

What really bothered me last night was checking my Facebook feed and seeing a "sponsored" ad for the Menlo Mandarin Facebook Page suggesting that I "Like" the page...they are still pushing ahead with their propaganda, despite the enormous negative reaction from the vast majority of the community. Clearly someone among the "founders" has time and money on their hands...creating polished powerpoint presentations with preposterous numbers, and paying for Facebook page advertising!

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Posted by MPCSD Parent2
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm


At the recent MPCSD meeting there were repeated invitations from charter school opponents to collaborate in order to expand foreign language/immersion offerings within MPCSD.

State law governing charter schools does not let charter schools to accept only in-district students, and, as noted above, state law nevertheless forces Basic Aid chartering districts (eg MPCSD) to bear (i) 100% of the ~$7000 per pupil funding for out-of-district students from other Basic Aid districts (eg Palo Alto) and (ii) 30% of the ~$7000 per pupil funding for out-of-district students from Revenue Limited districts (eg Redwood City).

In large part because of the way state law governing charter schools currently exists, the proposed charter school simply creates more problems than the solutions.

More foreign language/immersion programs is something our community wants. Key parts of collaboration, however, are patience and looking out for the greater good (not running off and going it alone whenever you don't get your way).

Like this comment
Posted by mpcsdparent
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Oct 26, 2014 at 8:13 am

I am appalled at the behavior of so many fellow parents in MPCSD who are against the immersion program. I wonder if racism is the source of their fears about a new mandarin immersion program. So sad that this community is so elitist and close minded.

1 person likes this
Posted by Tunbridge Wells
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 26, 2014 at 8:28 am

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

I think that the accusation of racism is misplaced at best and scurrilous at worst. The concerns that I hear, and share, have nothing to do with the mandarin language aspect of the charter school and everything to do with the charter aspect of the charter school, and the impact that will have on school funding for the district as a whole. If the proposed charter was not about mandarin immersion but instead was, say, purely STEAM based, I think the reaction would be much the same.

Accusing opponents of racism does not help your case, it just hurts it. Make your arguments for what you want based on facts. Don't make your arguments based on insults, it just confirms my perception that the pro-charter sie has a very weak argument.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2014 at 8:49 am

I share mpcsdparent's concern about racism in this issue......only I think it's pretty clear that is what's going on.

PURE xenophobia.

Like this comment
Posted by Mpcsd parent2
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 26, 2014 at 9:46 pm

The only evidence or utterance of racism i have heard has come from people who have failed to meanigfully address legitimate concerns raised by opponents of the proposed CHARTER school.
The debate is about the appropriateness of the proposed CHARTER school in MPCSD -- not Mandarin and not Chinese people or culture.
Rather than engage in meaningful debate, some would prefer to hide behind cries of "racism."

Like this comment
Posted by object to James 2
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Part of this charter school idea clearly is that teachers are paid far too much in Menlo Park. Otherwise why would the charter school pay the teachers that would work there FAR less money than what teachers in the MPCSD are paid? Unions are not the problem here, but the ridiculous math that the charter school proponents are putting forward.

How about the charter school matching the teacher pay scale that MPCSD already has? Or would that make having a charter school totally untenable? What kind of teachers are they going to attract at the the wages being offered?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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