About a dozen kindergartners gathered around tiny tables, each grabbing at crayons, scissors or glue, on a recent Monday morning at Sunrise Drive Elementary School.

The children were learning how to use the color green in a sentence using those items on a worksheet. Only, they were learning that in Chinese.

Sunrise Drive Elementary is one of two schools in the Tucson area providing Chinese immersion programs, which educators say are gaining popularity in the Tucson area. Mesquite Elementary in the Vail district is another one.

“One and a half billion people speak Chinese and that number expands with people who can collaborate or speak with others,” said Sheryl Castro, director of Global Citizenship Education at the Catalina Foothills School District, which Sunrise Drive is a part of. “There is a demand for people to speak and read in Chinese.”

Learning Chinese can give students an advantage in the job market in the future, she said. Immersion programs taught by Chinese teachers are the fastest and most effective way for a student to learn a language because they are taught at a young age, Castro said.

Students spend half the day learning in Mandarin and the other half, English, in immersion classrooms.

The immersion programs help create a better understanding of the culture and develop critical thinking skills, Castro said. Children who learn a second language also have a stronger memory and more creativity.

Mesquite Elementary had a waiting list of more than dozen students who wanted to enroll. The school added a second kindergarten class this year because the demand for immersion is so high.

The popularity is obvious, said Diane Samorano, principal of Mesquite Elementary, but for now, expansion is off the table. Mesquite was able to provide immersion programs through extra funding it received from being a charter school, but with under a new law, school districts can no longer sponsor charter schools.

Andrea Black, whose son is enrolled in the Mesquite immersion program, said she is sad to hear that the program won’t be expanding. “It breaks my heart that Mesquite is not expanding because it’s so unique.”

She saw the benefits of the program firsthand when her son, whose dream is to go to the Disney Land in Shanghai, earned a second place award at a Chinese language competition in September. When she heard him speak the language fluently, she then realized the program was worth it.

Black went to Phoenix to lobby the funding issue as part of the Mesquite parents community. “I just had to put my two cents in,” she said.

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The University of Arizona’s Confucious Institute is at the helm of Chinese immersion programs in Tucson. Four years ago, the Institute invited local elementary schools to join and Sunrise Drive was the first to take it up on the offer. It helps local schools find native Chinese teachers.

Since then, it has grown to Mesquite Elementary and other language classes in middle and high schools in the Tucson area.

“Our mission is to extend the program from K-12 and to make it a growing community,” Zhao Chen, co-director of the Confucious Institute said.

They have seven Confucious classrooms at the UA that provide funding for books, supplies, Chinese teachers from China, as well as fund events that the immersion programs participate in such as language competitions and drama shows.

“The program is going to be huge, we want to have more classes that will double in size along with more elementary and middle schools involved,” Chen said.

Gabriella Vukelic is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact Gabriella at

starapprentice@tucson.com