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File photo

By Allison Jarrell

South Orange County parents with children in the Capistrano Unified School District’s Mandarin Immersion Program can look forward to shorter commutes at the middle school level thanks to a 5-2 vote by the board of trustees Wednesday night to approve the program’s pathway from Marian Bergeson Elementary School to Niguel Hills Middle School in Laguna Niguel. The primary alternative considered was matriculation from Bergeson to Fred Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo.

Currently, CUSD’s Mandarin Immersion Program, or MIP, has two classrooms per grade level, kindergarten through third grade, and one classroom of 32 students in fourth grade at Marian Bergeson Elementary School in Laguna Niguel. Beginning in kindergarten, instructors teach MIP students in 80 percent Mandarin and 20 percent English, transitioning to a 50-50 model for third through fifth grade. By 2020, CUSD estimates that 145 middle school students will be enrolled in MIP.

Wednesday marked the fifth and final reading of the amendments to CUSD’s language immersion and international baccalaureate admissions, including updates to the recommended matriculation pathway for MIP. Based on previous feedback from trustees, staff’s recommendation was for MIP to matriculate from Bergeson to Fred Newhart Middle School to Capistrano Valley High School.

That recommendation did not settle well with MIP families who reside in south Orange County cities such as San Clemente, Dana Point and Capistrano Beach. According to a CUSD survey, south county families account for about 20 percent of MIP enrollment, while 46 percent of students live in Laguna Niguel and Aliso communities.

Backed by a petition with more than 50 signatures, eight south county parents addressed the board Wednesday asking that Niguel Hills be selected to harbor the middle school level of the program, as it would be a much faster commute and more centrally located, especially for parents with kids at multiple schools. Parents spoke mainly about having equal and fair access, stressing that they would not be able to manage the commute to Mission Viejo and would have to leave the program in Newhart were selected.

During the board’s discussion, Trustee John Alpay noted, and staff confirmed, that if CUSD’s survey had factored in only the students within the district’s boundaries, the most centrally-located option would be Niguel Hills. A few trustees countered that Niguel Hills currently does not have the capacity to support the influx of students, and renovating classrooms there would take funding away from maintenance for other district facilities.

Alpay offered a motion, seconded by Trustee Jim Reardon, to adopt the staff recommendation with the exception of changing the MIP middle school from Newhart to Niguel Hills.

Reardon, who was initially neutral on the matter, said even though it seems like Newhart would be a minimal increase in distance, traffic in the area during commute hours lengthens the drive considerably.

“I think there’s been a compelling case made here that we’re disrespecting San Clemente and Dana Point,” Reardon said. “I drive these roads every day; I know how long it takes just to get to La Paz on the freeway from San Juan Capistrano. I wouldn’t want to do it from San Clemente.”

The MIP at Niguel Hills will offer students Mandarin in history/social studies, science and language arts.

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