Volume 20 Issue 16 | Aug. 31 - Sept. 6, 2007

Back To School

Chinese dual-language school translates into success

By Sruthi Pinnamaneni

At first glance, the Shuang Wen YouTube video looks like a memory reel of a graduating class in any American school. But a closer look reveals the details that make this school unique: students standing below pagodas in China; girls performing Chinese dances in dresses of yellow and spring-green silk; a Web site with content in both English and Chinese. 

Shuang Wen School (P.S. 184M) prides itself on being the first dual-language, dual-culture school on the East Coast. Subjects are taught in English and Mandarin Chinese. The school uses a variety of programs to help students experience Chinese culture, even bringing in teachers from China. The Department of Education says the school’s solid performance is setting the bar. 

“In addition to the clear benefits of learning two languages,” said Maibe Gonzalez-Fuentes, a D.O.E. spokesperson, “research shows that dual-language students tend to perform better on tests than their peers in monolingual classes.” 

Despite occasional voicings of frustrations — some parents complained about the school’s move to another building and others found the curriculum very demanding — Shuang Wen appears ready for a new year. 

Shuang Wen opened in 1998 during a citywide push for smaller public schools. In large schools, it can be difficult to give close attention to individual children — and educators say such attention is essential for teaching a language as complex as Mandarin. “Shuang Wen” means “double language” in Chinese. The majority of the school’s students are of Chinese descent. But some non-Asian parents also enroll their children because of the school’s overall performance and its language immersion program.

During the day, classes are taught mainly in English. Students learn core subjects in the sciences and arts, and can also take special classes on professional development.

“If you come in at 1 p.m., it looks like any other school,” said Ernest Lydell Carter, senior program officer at New Visions, a partner group that helped start the school.

But at 3 p.m. everyday, the Mandarin teachers take over and switch to instruction in Chinese.

“It is one of the few middle schools where children get a chance to learn a language at an age when it easiest for them,” said Pamela Wheaton, editor of, a nonprofit guide to the city’s public schools.

Classes end at 5:30 p.m., a few hours later than at many other schools. 

What some parents and students call a long and grueling school day appears to have paid off. In the 2007 standardized state tests, 100 percent of Shuang Wen fourth graders passed the math exam while 98.2 percent passed the English exam; both results are much higher than the citywide fourth grade average of 74 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Shuang Wen is listed as one of the city’s top schools in “Public Middle Schools: New York City’s Best,” a 2007 book by Clara Hemphill. 

“The school’s success has everything to do with consistent leadership, a strong and involved parent body and teachers dedicated to the concept of small schools,” explained Carter. He also credits the students, who show enthusiasm in the face of a tough curriculum. 

But it’s not all hard work and no play. The school does uphold the cultural-exchange part of their mission through school trips, dance performances and a special program in which they bring in teachers from China. The first graduating eighth grade took a trip to China a few months ago. The school Web site describes the journey from Xi-An to Su Zhou, where students got a taste of ancient history and local foods like Yellow Mountain frog and crab meat soup dumplings. 

“The visit was planned as a culminating opportunity for kids to see, smell and feel the places that they had been reading about for years,” said Carter.

And the trip came at the end of a challenging year for Shuang Wen. 

Last fall, the school made a much-anticipated move from its shared space with P.S. 134 on East Broadway to a building that housed P.S. 137, a few blocks west on Cherry St. Parents from P.S. 137 were up in arms, saying they did not want their children moved to the P.S. 134 building. And though Shuang Wen was finally getting its own space, some parents said they also felt let down. For years they had expected to transition to a large, new facility and instead, their children were being sent to what they said was an old building in need of renovation. 

“Having no influence on the decision, we were assigned to a building without an auditorium, without a library and in severe disrepair,” said a parent in a November 2006 letter to The Villager. “What renovations and modifications have been planned?” 

And on top of a difficult move, some students say they are tired of the demanding dual-language program. Insideschools representatives interviewed seventh graders and reported that a few children said they are “done with learning Mandarin” and feel “burnt out.” 

But the Insideschools representatives also found that the school was taking steps to introduce programs that made learning Mandarin more fun, especially for children at the middle school level. 

“We live in a global society,” said Carter, “and if parents see an opportunity for their children to learn another language or two, they should take it.”

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