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At Issue: Preparing youth for a world that’s flat

Published (4/11/2008)
By Thomas Hammell
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Shu-Whei Miao asks a question of a student in her Chinese III class at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)

As Shu-Whei Miao enters the classroom, her students bow and she tells them it’s time for morning exercises. The students, a little sheepishly, follow her in a series of neck rolls and arm movements, and then they sit down. The classroom is like any other — the only noticeable difference is that posters on the wall are in Mandarin Chinese.

Miao begins by asking the students, in Chinese, what kinds of stores can be found on University Avenue in St. Paul, an area with a large Asian population. She asks them to tell her where to find shops, restaurants and a Chinese grocery store.

These students are in the Chinese III class at St. Paul’s Highland Park Senior High, and though the district has had a longstanding Chinese program, many school districts are trying to implement the language into their curriculum.

“Really, when it comes to teaching Chinese, Minnesota is seen as a leader,” said John Melick, director of Chinese language initiatives for the Department of Education.

New programs

Since the department’s 2007 report on establishing Chinese language programs came out, Melick said there has been change.

“The biggest change is the number of new programs and new students studying Chinese from last year to this year,” he said. The state has four schools offering Chinese immersion curriculum: Minnetonka Public Schools offers it in kindergarten and first grade at two different schools, Hopkins Public Schools offers it in kindergarten and the Yinghua Academy in St. Paul has expanded its offerings to fourth grade.

Melick said the Legislature put five grants into law in 2007 each giving districts $50,000 for each of two years. One grant had to go to Mandarin Chinese, and one to an indigenous American Indian language program. The other three had to go to K-8 world language instruction.

Will Robertson, a sophomore at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul, works on a worksheet during the Chinese III class. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie) sponsored the legislation that led to these grants and would like to see funding this year, though because of the deficit, that likely won’t happen, he said.

“I think the next step, though, is to offer more grants, to have more focus for more opportunities on it,” he said. He said he would like to see Mandarin Chinese offered in every high school in the state by 2020.

Melick said based on the quality of grant applications, the money went to Yinghua Academy and Fridley Public Schools. Both will have two years to develop world language programs, which will be used as models for language programs throughout the state.

Although the state does not have formalized guidelines for teaching Chinese, this year more than 3,000 students in Minnesota are studying the language, compared to 2,216 last year. The number is small compared to the 116,188 students studying Spanish, but Mandarin Chinese programs will grow if the interest is there.

China by the numbers

Interest in Mandarin Chinese peaked after Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2005 China trade mission and again after Education Commissioner Alice Seagren led a delegation to the country in 2006.

“China is recognized as one of the major players that is going to shape our future,” Melick said.

It’s easy to see why there is such an interest in the language.

China has a Gross Domestic Product of $3.24 trillion and the predominant dialect, Mandarin, is spoken by more than 70 percent of the population, according to information from the U.S. State Department. Cumulative United States investment in China was estimated at $65.2 billion through 2007, making the U.S. the second largest foreign investor in China.

It’s not surprising, then, that some parents want to give their children an early start. At the Yinghua Academy, students are getting just that.

Just a few blocks from University Avenue in St. Paul, students begin their day singing songs in Chinese. Most of the school’s instruction is in Chinese, although since the school was started in 2006, some of the older students are taught primarily in English.

Director Betsy Lueth said language is so tied to culture, that by learning a language, people become more culturally literate.

She favors immersion education.

“I think immersion just provides a better opportunity to get to native fluency levels,” she said.

Putting it all together

Federal, not state, money seems to be the key to the establishment of programs for some Greater Minnesota Chinese language courses. Willmar Public Schools, located in the west-central part of the state, has a Chinese language program thanks to a federal grant.

Last year the district began implementing a Mandarin Chinese program with a part-time teacher who is full-time this year, Superintendent Kathy Leedom said.

The school had 40 students in Chinese I last year, and will have 61 students in the class this year and 29 in Chinese II. Next year they are planning a Chinese III section, she said.

Along with a local match, the school received more than $300,000 from the federal Foreign Language Assistance Program for a three-year period, Leedom said. The grant allowed the schools to gradually implement a new world language program over a few years.

“I was part of the Minnesota trade mission trip to China, and definitely my own interest as a school leader was a result of that trip,” she said. On top of that, the district’s administrative cabinet had finished reading “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century,” by Thomas Friedman, a book about the changing world economy.

“Collectively we were beginning the process of offering the types of classes we should be offering to prepare students for a world they are going to be a part of as they leave the school setting,” Leedom said.

Mankato Area Public Schools Superintendent Ed Waltman said the district’s two high schools share a Chinese language class, but the program will likely not be offered next year. The school was hoping to get grant money for the program, but the Legislature did not approve enough money for all schools.

The school funded the class this year for $15,000. After some students dropped out, the school has 15 in the class.

“We’ve got only six students that want to continue next year with Chinese II,” he said.

Jodi Husting, K-12 world language project coordinator for South Washington County Schools, said the district also received a federal grant and is running a pilot program at three elementary schools and hoping to expand that to fifth or sixth grade.

The funding came from the federal government, but Husting said the network created to make the report has been helpful.

“Just generally speaking, in order for a language program to be successful, there needs to be support for second language learning in general,” she said. “If we want our students to be competitive globally, we need to provide a wealth of opportunities for second language learning.”

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