Feature

Chinese By Choice

The growth of language classes in districts nationwide is hampered only by the challenge of landing qualified teachers of Chinese by Kate Beem

Like so many of his colleagues, Dennis Fisher read The World Is Flat and was hooked. The book, by award-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, describes how certain world events and the explosion of technology have leveled the playing field among countries, making it simple for students in India to compete for jobs with their American counterparts.

His 2005 book, now twice updated, has educational leaders rethinking how to ensure their students are prepared for successful lives in a global society and scrambling to introduce curricular programs to meet the needs on a flattening economic landscape.

For Fisher, superintendent of the 9,500-student Park Hill School District in Kansas City’s northern suburbs, the book just gave a name to a thought that had been percolating in his head for a while. Reading Friedman’s book, coupled with his college-age son’s basketball team’s trip from Topeka, Kan., to China for two weeks, provided an “aha!” moment.

“It got me to thinking how small the world has become,” Fisher says. “This younger generation travels to Europe and Asia like my family used to travel to the state fair when I was little.”

So Fisher set out to give his students a leg up in an increasingly global society, championing the addition of an Asian studies course to the social studies curriculum and investigating how the district could add a Mandarin Chinese course to its language offerings.

“The Chinese economy is a huge, powerful force,” Fisher says. “It will be a huge part of our children’s future. They need to at least know about that culture.”

Turning East
Indeed, China cannot be ignored. With one-fifth of the world’s population, the communist country is an economic force to be reckoned with. Even as other Asian economies from India to Malaysia are growing at astronomical rates, China’s growth over the last 30 years is staggering. Since 1978, China’s gross domestic product has grown by an average of 10 percent yearly. In the first two quarters of 2007 alone, the Chinese economy grew by almost 12 percent, according to The Economist magazine.

Later this year, China will play host to the summer Olympic games, which has further increased scrutiny from the rest of the world. And for a good portion of the world’s population, particularly in Asia, Chinese is a second language.

All this explains why more and more school districts are casting their thoughts east as educators tweak curricular offerings in their efforts to keep current.

“Globalization is not a choice,” says Shuhan Wang, executive director for Chinese Language Initiatives at the Asia Society in New York. “It’s a fact.”

It hasn’t happened overnight, Wang says, and it’s not a fad. As technology has improved and eased communications between countries, the world has slowly opened up. But timing and world events — from the Olympics to political conflicts all over the globe — have come together in these early years of the 21st century to make the time ripe for schools to try to get ahead, or at the least stay abreast, of the curve, Wang says.

This phenomenon has happened before with other languages, says Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. In the 1960s, Sputnik and the space race put Russian on the language map. In the 1980s, Japan’s economic boom caused school districts to debate the merits of offering Japanese.

“Course offerings in public schools are a numbers game,” Abbott says. “They can only offer the languages when students show an interest.”

Rapid Gains
Chinese arrived late to the game, but the language is a definite player.

A 2004 College Board survey revealed that school districts around the country wanted to offer Chinese, but finding qualified teachers was a problem, says Selena Cantor, director of Chinese Language and Culture Initiatives for the College Board. So last year, a new College Board program brought guest teachers from China to school districts in 31 states. The program gives districts a chance to jumpstart a new language program and test the waters of its popularity, Cantor says.

Teacher licensure in most states hasn’t caught up with the trend, creating issues for some districts, but change is coming in that arena, too, with many states developing alternative or provisional licensing opportunities.

The numbers of American students now studying Chinese has increased dramatically since 2000, the last year for which figures are available, Abbott says. Eight years ago, Chinese wasn’t on the radar screen, with only about 5,000 students nationwide in grades seven through 12 studying the language. Now, she estimates, between 30,000 and 50,000 American elementary and secondary students are studying the Chinese language.

The growth is happening in every corner of the country. Some school districts have built their own programs and relationships with guest teachers from the Chinese mainland, while others have been helped along by partnerships with American colleges and universities with ties to China. Some of the newest programs have been born of the College Board guest-teacher program.

Here’s a look at how six school districts around the country have tackled the issue.


Park Hill School District, Kansas City
Fisher, the superintendent, began talking about offering Mandarin Chinese to students at Park Hill’s two high schools about two years ago. He queried Chamber of Commerce types in the community, a middle- to upper-middle-class suburb of Kansas City. He received an overwhelmingly positive response. Businesspeople told Fisher they wanted their employees of the future to be conversant about cultures other than their own, he says.

A Menu for Cooking Up Chinese


Offering Chinese language courses is all the rage these days, but developing programs can be daunting. Don’t fear, though. There are plenty of places to turn for help. The experts — mostly those district leaders who have Chinese programs in place — offer these four pieces of advice:

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His school board was receptive, too, when Fisher broached the idea of including funds for a new course in the 2007-08 budget. He made clear he didn’t view the addition of Chinese as a replacement for any of the district’s other language offerings — German, French and Spanish. He told the board costs wouldn’t increase if the course met the district’s expectations.

The district’s acceptance into the College Board’s guest-teacher program sealed the deal, Fisher says. The program hooks up U.S. school districts and private schools with qualified teachers from Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International. Hanban pays the teachers a monthly stipend and their transportation to the United States. The school districts provide teachers with housing, local transportation and administrative fees.

Those costs vary across the country, but Fisher thought the arrangement was a steal. For about $5,000, Park Hill has a native-speaking Chinese teacher for 18 months. And Fisher hopes that Liquian “Vincent” Niu, the guest teacher, might stay even longer, allowing Park Hill more time to search for a permanent teacher for the growing program.

Niu arrived in Kansas City in January 2007, which allowed him to help with the development of the district’s Chinese course. He also acted as an ambassador for the new program, making presentations to community groups and at other schools within the district. During summer 2007, Niu taught a middle-school exploratory class on Chinese. And he has worked on the district’s partnerships with nearby Park University and the University of Kansas’ Confucius Institute, located 40 miles away in Lawrence, Kan.

In fall 2007, 80 students from both Park Hill and Park Hill South high schools enrolled in Niu’s beginning Chinese class. Eventually, the district hopes to offer four years of high school Chinese and the opportunity for students to take the Advanced Placement Chinese exam, Fisher says.

The most difficult part of adding the language to the Park Hill curriculum was easing Niu’s transition to living in America. Generally, the district doesn’t worry about the details of new teachers’ personal lives. But Niu didn’t know how to drive, and public transportation is almost nonexistent in Kansas City. The district provided Niu with driving lessons, the use of a district-leased small pick-up and a new bicycle.

It was a learning experience all around, Fisher says, and well worth the effort.

“We’re very excited,” Fisher says. “It’s a great opportunity for our students.”

Minnetonka School District, Minnetonka, Minn.
While other districts are investigating how to begin offering Mandarin Chinese, the Minnetonka School District is expanding its nearly 20-year-old program into two elementary schools.

The 8,000-student school district in suburban Minneapolis launched Mandarin Chinese as a language offering for the first time during the 1989-90 school year. Don Draayer, superintendent at the time, proposed the course after visiting China the previous year with a group of administrators sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators. That trip convinced Draayer that Chinese was a rising world language and important cultural force.

“My job as a school superintendent was to try to anticipate needs and trends for the future,” Draayer says.

But he did meet with some community resistance when he proposed adding Mandarin to the Minnetonka language offerings, which now include French, Spanish, German and Japanese. The board vote on adding the course was split. And Draayer worried when, in summer 1989, the Chinese government crushed pro-democracy protests during the Tiananmen Square uprising. Half the students enrolled in that first class dropped it before school started.

Grant money made up for the difference, and community skepticism about the new class faded as the school year wore on. The next year, enough students enrolled to warrant two sections of Chinese, says Draayer, who retired from Minnetonka in 1995.

These days, says Mike Lovett, assist-ant superintendent for the district, Minnetonka students can take five full years of Mandarin Chinese, starting in the 8th grade. Two hundred secondary students are studying the language, and seniors can opt to take the International Baccalaureate proficiency test in Chinese.

The largest increase in numbers of students enrolling in Chinese is happening in the 8th grade, where this year 65 students are taking Chinese I. “It bodes well for the future of that secondary program,” he says. So does the district’s Chinese immersion program, which began this year in two elementary schools (four other elementary schools began Spanish immersion programs this year.)

Under development for three years, the program for kindergarten through 2nd-graders delivers complete instruction in Chinese. Parents opt their children into the classrooms with the understanding they won’t begin receiving instruction in English until the 3rd grade, Lovett says.

The program is one of only 18 elementary Mandarin immersion programs nationally, according to figures from the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, which helped Minnetonka develop its immersion programs.

Minnetonka’s six teachers of Chinese are native speakers, and five of the six have master’s degrees from American universities, Lovett says. Not all are licensed, but they have one-year provisional licenses and are completing coursework with the hopes of receiving permanent licenses within the next few years, Lovett says.

Shawnee Mission School District, Overland Park, Kan.
Chinese language classes also are nothing new in the Shawnee Mission School District in suburban Kansas City. Students there have had the option of studying Chinese language and geopolitics since 1991.

While languages such as French, German and Spanish are offered as part of the curricula at the district’s five high schools, students in the 28,500-student district also can take Russian, Japanese, Arabic or Chinese through the Center for International Studies. That center, which includes language and related social studies classes, is housed at one high school, Shawnee Mission South High School. Students from across the district who want to take one of the languages offered through the center must transfer to that school.

The Center for International Studies began as the brainchild of former Superintendent Raj Chopra. He espoused the idea of promoting international relations, says current Superintendent Marjorie Kaplan, who inherited the program. Kaplan says the program’s strong suit is its coupling of language courses with geopolitical courses. To be sure, the trend now in foreign-language instruction is to teach students language in the context of culture.

“I think that really relates to [Thomas] Friedman’s book. It’s more than just learning the language,” Kaplan says. “You have to learn about the culture of the country.”

Currently, about 24 Shawnee Mission students are studying Chinese, but Kaplan expects the number to rise now that the district has a partnership with Kaifeng High School in China. The school is roughly the same size as Shawnee Mission South, which enrolls about 1,800 students. For the last three years, the two schools have exchanged teachers, with the faculty member from China staying in the Shawnee Mission district for the entire school year.

The Chinese exchange teacher then can participate in programs at various levels across the district, building interest in the Center for International Studies, Kaplan says.

Oakland County Intermediate School District, Oakland County, Mich.
The new Chinese language program in the Oakland County Schools in Waterford, Mich., came about through cooperation between the school district and economic development officials.

A few years ago, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson challenged the 28 local superintendents of the Oakland County Intermediate School District to figure out a way to offer Chinese to students, citing China’s emerging economic and political role in the world. The local districts serve about 195,000 students in the county, which abuts Wayne County, where Detroit is located.

The educators took up Patterson’s challenge, says Tresa Zumsteg, deputy superintendent for instructional serv-ices of the intermediate district, which oversees the 28 local districts. Oakland County’s economy has depended heavily on the auto industry, but times are changing, Zumsteg says.


Building on Mandarin offerings in four Oakland districts (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Novi and Troy), the Oakland initiative has grown this school year to include middle and high school language programs in two local districts, preschool and primary-grade immersion programs in two others, and online Mandarin courses for upper elementary through high school students in four districts. All 28 districts are offering units on Chinese culture as part of the social studies curriculum.

Guest Teachers From China, Via the College Board


Public schools nationwide have seen a major boost in the number of Chinese language programs in the past years thanks in significant part to an unlikely source — the College Board.

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The program’s goals over the next three years include offering preschool through 12th-grade Mandarin Chinese programs in all districts as well as offering online and distance learning programs as ways to acquire language skills.

The initiative, which dovetails with Michigan’s new high school graduation requirements calling for two credits of foreign language, is costing taxpayers little, says Zumsteg. With Michigan’s state budget constraints, officials saw right off that private money would have to spur development of the Chinese initiative. The program began with $300,000 from companies such as ArvinMeritor and Chrysler, and officials are seeking an additional $2 million to keep going for the next three to five years until the program can become sustainable within districts’ budgets, Zumsteg says.

Along with outside funding, the Oakland district has struck up partnerships with Michigan State, Wayne State, Oakland and Eastern Michigan universities and the University of Michigan, which has been of particular help in fast-tracking certification for new teachers of Chinese. Meanwhile, teaching the program currently are guest teachers from the Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The initiative has been well-received, although there are frequent questions of “Why China?” Zumsteg says. And the answer is simple, she tells people. Trade barriers are gone, and both China and the United States benefit from working together.

“What people don’t understand is that General Motors is the No. 2 seller of cars in China,” Zumsteg says. “It would hurt the American economy if we didn’t trade with China.”

Hempfield Area School District, Landisville, Pa.
This is the second year the 6,600-student Hempfield Area School District in Landisville, Pa., has offered Chinese to students. Located about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the district piloted the program last year by offering Chinese I after school. This year, about 90 students at the district’s high school are learning Chinese, and the district hopes eventually to offer the language to 7th and 8th graders, says Bob O’Donnell, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

The program grew out of ongoing visits to the school districts by Chinese educators through a partnership with nearby Millersville University, O’Donnell says. Two years ago, the district began investigating the possibility of offering Chinese to students as a way to prepare them for the “flattening of the world and life after high school,” O’Donnell says.

The problem, though, was finding a teacher. Although district officials contemplated a guest-teacher program, they decided ultimately to hire Xiadong Fan, a native of China who was working at Millersville University. Fan was certified in China to teach English and has two graduate degrees, in reading and technical education.

Fan, who helped develop the Hempfield program, now teaches Chinese I and II at Hempfield High School as well as Chinese I through a distance-learning hookup with three other local high schools. Working with the other district helps offset the cost to Hempfield, O’Donnell says, and was an asset in selling the program to the school board.

Ultimately, enrollment will drive the program, O’Donnell says, but interest is high. And as the high school moves next year to a block schedule, more students might use their elective time to take Chinese, he says.

Los Angeles Unified School District
Mandarin Chinese isn’t a brand-new offering in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which enrolls about 700,000 students in eight local districts. For several years, it’s been a language choice in some schools, along with American Sign Language, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin and Spanish.

But officials wanted to offer more students in urban areas a wider perspective, emphasizing languages and cultures other than their own, says Liza Scruggs, assistant superintendent for secondary instruction.

Along came the College Board guest-teacher program, which is giving the district the chance to beef up its language offerings at five inner-city schools with predominantly African-American and Hispanic populations. Four teachers from the Hanban in China are teaching this year in Los Angeles schools.

Scruggs said the idea is to introduce Mandarin to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be exposed to it, “to create interest so all students understand the importance of speaking a language other than what they speak at home.”

“This allows us to build and expand our program beyond the children you would think would want to learn Mandarin,” Scruggs says.

Now, one guest teacher splits time between Dorsey High School and neighboring Coliseum Elementary School. Both are located in south-central Los Angeles. Another guest teacher spends every day at Audubon Middle School in southwest Los Angeles. Two east L.A. elementary schools — City Terrace and Gates — received guest teachers, too. They’re feeder schools for Lincoln High School, which currently enrolls 30 students in Advanced Placement Chinese Language and Culture.

The Los Angeles district’s goal is to increase Mandarin offerings across the city by 2020, Scruggs says. That’s why the elementary programs are so important, she says.

“The earlier you start, the better it is for the students. It’s just a life skill.”

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@earthlink.net