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Chinese on the Chattahoochee: K-12 Chinese Language Programs Taking Off in Georgia

Post Series: 2008: Volume 7, Number 1
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In 2000, a meeting at a prominent Atlanta school about the possibility of starting a Chinese language program concluded with a question about the need to study “Red China.” Additional questions followed, about the likely interest of students – let alone parents – in courses in Chinese. Little could the participants imagine how quickly things would change.

In the months immediately following, a number of globally minded schools in Atlanta began the process of teaching Chinese, joining the one Georgia school with a long-running high school Chinese program – North Atlanta High School. Others quickly followed, and by 2008, the aforementioned school had jumped on the bandwagon as well. Seemingly overnight, nationwide demand has made Mandarin Chinese one of the “hottest” languages for K-12 schools to teach.

National Demand for Chinese

Across the country hundreds of Chinese programs have been started in the past few years. Growth has been particularly noteworthy in California, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Boston, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and the Bay Area. The Language of the Future Sounds Like Chinese1 and The Future Doesn’t Speak French2 have become familiar headlines, as Chinese language learning in K-12 schools has taken off. While there are no precise statistics for the number of K-12 students studying Chinese, when the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages conducted a survey in 2000, only about 5,000 students were studying Chinese in primary and secondary schools. By 2006, they estimated that number to have reached 30,000 to 50,000.3 By the end of 2008, that number is likely to be exponentially higher, given the number of schools planning to start programs as soon as they can secure qualified teachers.

A number of converging forces are fueling this rapid growth.

Fear – By way of comparison, some experts have cited the language trends of the 1960s – i.e., the study of Russian after Sputnik – and the 1980s – i.e., the study of Japanese as Japan’s economy soared – and pointed to Chinese as next in this line. In fact, Chinese is similar, yet also different: Perhaps never before has a single nation combined an economy with China’s massive potential, a huge and increasingly well-educated population, and political and military influence to boot.

Competition – Forward-thinking parents are always anxious for their children to secure the very best academic and professional opportunities. In a global economy, with increasing ties to Asia, and China in particular, learning to communicate in Chinese seems like the perfect ticket ahead. “There are unbelievable opportunities to do business in China, so there’s a need for Americans to learn the language, so we’re not left out,” says one proponent of Boston’s first Chinese immersion program.4Similar sentiments can now be heard nationwide.

Interest – One only needs to visit one of the Chinese language classrooms in the inner city of Chicago or Atlanta, to appreciate how enthralled elementary students are with the language and culture. Chinese, with its sharp difference from both spoken and written English, has a strong attraction for many children, and arguably youth and adults as well. In the mid-1990s, when the author was first teaching Chinese to elementary school students in New Haven, Connecticut, this strong sense of fascination was clearly on display – long before the current push for Chinese, a decade later. Give American children a choice between studying a language more closely related to English and studying Chinese, and the latter will win out, hands-down.

Educational Reform – U.S. education is troubled in more complex ways than revealed by weak standardized reading and math scores. Schools must globalize the curriculum, if they are to effectively train students for the real world of the future. Integrating Chinese into the curriculum as early as possible offers a clear way to shake things up across the board. “Efforts to improve reading, math and science skills may be on the nation’s educational forefront, but quieter efforts are being made by educators and the government to prepare children for the future by teaching them languages such as Arabic and Chinese.”5

China’s “Soft Power” Revolution – The Chinese government has stated that it “wants 100 million Mandarin students worldwide by 2010 (compared to the current estimate of 40 million)” and is putting real money where its mouth is. Since 2004, Beijing’s National Office for Teaching Chinese (commonly known as Hanban) has been opening Chinese language and cultural centers – Confucius Institutes – at a quickening pace across the globe.6 At the most recently established Institutes, moreover, one finds an increasingly direct focus on K-16 Chinese language and culture education. Hanban has also been involved in developing teacher exchange and training programs, to help fill the void of qualified Chinese language teachers. Since 2006, it has invited and sponsored thousands of school administrators from around the U.S. to visit and “experience” China.7 Further, it has supported the development of significant language assessment measures, including the Chinese Advanced Placement test and a revamped version of the Chinese Proficiency Test.8

Chinese in Georgia

The Southeast has lagged somewhat behind other regions, in the development of K-12 Chinese programs. But things are changing quickly and with the proper support, and continued collaboration along the lines we have seen in recent years, the region could quickly catch up.

In Georgia, only four high school Chinese programs existed in 2000.9 By 2008, more than twenty K-12 schools10 were teaching Chinese. Another ten to fifteen, meanwhile, plan to offer Chinese in the coming year. The outstanding challenges for Georgia, the region, and the nation, however, remain significant:11

  • Lack of well-trained teachers and educational programs to train, certify, and mentor new teachers.
  • Problems of standardization and the need to develop strong performance and standards-based curricula for a new language track.
  • Absence of an effective K-16 continuum or “pipeline” – In most foreign language disciplines, there is some lack of continuity between K-12 and university-level programs. With Chinese, this division is exacerbated by a number of factors, including issues of standardization, traditional teaching approaches vs. proficiency-oriented instruction, negative attitudes towards Putonghua speakers from different regions of China, and issues of hierarchy among educational institutions.
  • Limited state support for K-12 foreign language programs – With only 44% of American high school students12 taking a foreign language class, this challenge is clearly national in scope. However, in 2006 and 2007, Governor Sonny Perdue revealed a troubling lack of appreciation of the importance of teaching foreign languages, by vetoing (in 2006) and then vetoing and redirecting (in 2007) funding for Georgia’s elementary foreign language model program. Operating at 29 schools, this program has been applauded by the Center for Applied Linguistics as “a state of the art model within the field of foreign language,” “excellent by any measure,” and showing “continuous renewal of curriculum and professional development…of a high quality.”13 Additionally, the State has been considering removal of the two-year high school foreign language requirement for several years. With Chinese in particular, states with strong support from their legislative and executive branch officials have been doing groundbreaking work in creating some of the top K-12 Chinese language programs in the country.14 Nationally known programs in the state of Minnesota and the City of Chicago exemplify the results of such support from the top.15

What Next?

Although Georgia is on track to develop a good network of K-12 schools teaching Chinese, much remains to be done.

  • Networking among as many parties as possible is particularly crucial to new Chinese programs. Formal and informal networking should take place between:

(1) K-12 schools with Chinese programs

(2) K-12 Chinese language teachers themselves, at all levels

(3) Students of Chinese – An annual conference for Chinese language students in the state or region should be organized, along with a rigorous summer language and culture program

(4) Post-secondary institutions and K-12 schools, with both having much to gain from the interaction

(5) K-12 schools and Chinese heritage schools. Since the largest teacher pool in the new and growing field of Chinese language instruction comes from Chinese heritage schools, this communication is essential. It is also useful in help bridging the native and non-native Chinese language learning gap.

  • Standards and assessments for K-16 Chinese language learning need to be in place in all institutions, at all levels, and concrete, standards-based curriculum needs to be developed, based on successful, proven models. In order for this to happen at the K-12 level, Chinese teachers in new K-12 programs must be given the time, training, and outside resources necessary to develop such curriculum. University-level programs should work to create overall, broadly uniform standards, especially as they prepare to receive a “new generation” of Chinese language learners in the near future.
  • Teacher Training and Mentoring – All public school teachers must be “certified,” but Chinese teachers in private schools and even those with certification (whether provisional or permanent) usually require further basic training in current pedagogy, classroom management skills, and cross-cultural issues, among other things. The majority of K-12 Chinese language teachers in Georgia come from a background of teaching at heritage schools16 – a specific, insulated atmosphere with different goals and standards of instruction. In Georgia, as in other parts of the country, there is also a need to build new pipelines for Chinese instructors (e.g., university students who are studying and majoring in Chinese), in order to create a field as diverse as the Chinese speakers of the world.
  • Support from a Wide Range of Players – The most successful Chinese programs around the country have had the outspoken support of mayors, governors, state boards of education, the business community, and neighborhood communities in which the Chinese programs are being implemented. On a small scale, support from within the communities where the first Chinese programs are being started, such as the Kirkwood neighborhood surrounding Toomer Elementary, in the City of Atlanta, or the private school community of parents at The Lovett School, has proven critical. Ultimately, however, in terms of a wider support network, there is room for more direct and open involvement and support from a variety of entities across the state.

Conclusion

As every journey must begin with a single step, in Georgia, the first step toward making Chinese a language of the future has been taken. Educators and communities now need to work in collaboration, to create programs that are strong from the outset and viable for the long term.

Examples of pioneering Chinese language programs, from across Georgia’s varied primary and secondary schools, include the following:

Toomer Elementary School (Atlanta Public Schools)

In the heart of Atlanta, this K-5 elementary school began planning for implementation of its Chinese program in 2005. The local parents association was closely involved as the school applied for and received a planning grant from the State of Georgia, to support a year of careful preparation and the inauguration of the first mainstream public elementary school Chinese program in the state.17 During the 2006-07 planning year, a core group of Atlanta Public Schools, Toomer administrators and foreign language consultants visited three cities around the country where Chinese had been successfully implemented, in order to learn from their programs. They also initiated a national search for experienced and enthusiastic teachers to start the program, engaged the community in efforts to educate parents about why teaching Chinese had been established as a priority, and worked with classroom teachers to give them ideas about how to better integrate Asian studies into their classrooms, thereby facilitating a fuller integration of Chinese. A partnership with Emory University, only two miles from Toomer, was also established, which led to a successful application for the first Confucius Institute in the state of Georgia, which will open officially in March 2008 and be housed at Coan Middle School, just down the street from Toomer. When visiting Toomer’s classrooms – and especially those of the kindergarten students, who receive daily language instruction – one can immediately sense the energy and enthusiasm with which the students have embraced Chinese.

Southeast High School (Whitfield County Schools)

In the northwest corner of Georgia, at the tail end of the Appalachian mountains, lies Whitfield County. In 2005, the principal of Southeast High School expressed interest in starting Chinese, and with the assistance of the Whitfield County Schools, this idea came to fruition in the fall of 2007. Beyond the rural character of Whitfield, it is also worth noting that the school-age population in the district is approximately 46% Hispanic. For a substantial number of the 150 students who have enrolled in the first year of the program, Chinese is their third language. Given this level of enthusiasm, the other two high schools in Whitfield are also planning to start teaching Chinese in the fall of 2008 . The students at Southeast High “report that [Chinese] is a challenging language to learn.” But their teachers have seen them “rising to the challenge!”18

The Lovett School (Atlanta)

With just over 1,500 students, this independent K-12 school located in Northwest Atlanta first considered offering Chinese in the late 1990s. In 1999, the then-headmaster, Dr. Jim Hendrix, charged a team of faculty to assess the possibility of offering Chinese, and develop an implementation plan for doing so. By 2000, Chinese culture classes and elements of Chinese language were being integrated into the existing curriculum, from the elementary through the high school level, in order to pave the way for the planned introduction of Chinese. By 2002, a Chinese language class was initiated in the seventh grade, as part of the regular 7-12 foreign language course offerings – making Lovett the first school in Georgia with a six-year Chinese continuum . Five years into the program, Lovett now has three Chinese language teachers and over sixty Chinese students, and plans to offer the Chinese AP exam to the first class to come up through the ranks next year, when they will be in the twelfth grade – another first for Georgia.

  1. The Language of the Future Sounds Like Chinese, Hartford Courant, Aug. 27, 2007.
  2. The Future Doesn’t Speak French, Newsweek, May 9, 2005. A recent article, in USA Today, opens with an even stronger quote: “Chinese isn’t the new French – it’s the new English.” Elizabeth Weise, As China Booms, So Does Mandarin in U.S. Schools, USA Today, Nov. 19, 2007.
  3. See Ben Arnoldy, Chinese-Language Classes Full, But Teachers Scarce in U.S., Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2007. Comparing the number of students studying a given language, rather than patterns of growth, this remains a miniscule number, compared to Spanish or French. In the 2000 ACTFL language survey, over 5 million K-12 students were studying Spanish, or approximately 80% of the total number of students studying a foreign language in U.S. schools. French was a fairly distant second, with about 1.3 million students. See Jamie Draper and June Hicks, Foreign Language Enrollments in Public Secondary Schools, Fall 2000, ACTFL, May 2002, available at www.actfl.org/files/public/enroll2000.pdf.
  4. Adam Gorlick, As China’s Power Grows, So Do Chinese Programs in Public Schools, Boston Globe, March 11, 2007, available at www.boston.com/new/local/massachusetts/articles/2007/03/11/.
  5. Center Speaks Up for Arabic, Chinese Languages Called Critical to U.S., But Few are Learning or Teaching, Washington Times, March 13, 2007.
  6. Jennifer Chen, Mandarin Missionaries, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2007, available at http://online.wsj.com.
  7. State Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, Deputy Superintendent of Schools, and three members of her staff were participants in the China Bridge Summer 2007 program, and in September 2007 Superintendent Cox convened a meeting of other former Bridge participants to create a list of recommendation about supporting the expansion of Chinese in Georgia.
  8. The Chinese Proficiency Test, developed by the HSK Center of Beijing Language and Culture University and commonly known as HSK, is China’s national standardized test of the Chinese proficiency of non-native Chinese speakers. The test developers have been working to create a more proficiency-based exam for the past several years, and made some initial changes in testing format, in Spring 2007.
  9. Of particular note is the Chinese program at North Atlanta High School (the only one of the four still in operation, given limited support and systematic planning for Chinese at the other institutions). North Atlanta introduced Chinese – as well as Arabic – in the early 1980s, as part of its International Studies Magnet program.
  10. By the fall of 2007, based on annual meetings of the Georgia Chinese Language Educator’s Group and the author’s regular correspondence with foreign language coordinators from across the state, there were twenty-four Georgia schools teaching Chinese language and culture in some form. The actual number is likely even higher, however, given that some schools may not yet be plugged into the state network.
  11. See Maura Hallam Sweley, Chinese Fever: Interest in Learning This Less Commonly Taught Language is Hot, The Language Educator (ACTFL), Nov. 2006.
  12. As of 2003, Georgia was in somewhat better shape, comparatively, as the number of high school students with at least two years of foreign language instruction was 70%. See Georgia May Drop Foreign Language Requirement in One-Track Diploma System, Minnesota Issue Watch, Jan. 2003, available at http://www.mnplan.state.mn.us/issues/resource.html?Id=3234.
  13. See http://www.flageorgia.org/advocacy/ESFLfactSheet.html and http://www.cal.org/resources/archive/rgos/fles.html.
  14. Worthy of mention are a number of initiatives that have come from the State Superintendent of Education’s office since her return from China in July 2007. Kathy Cox and her staff have convened meetings on the issue of how to help support the expansion of Chinese language in Georgia’s schools, been meeting with universities in the Atlanta region to discuss teaching training initiatives, and the state also funded a planning grant in 2006-07 for the first Chinese language elementary school program in the state at Toomer Elementary School.
  15. See Department of Education Releases Mandarin Chinese Report to the Legislature, Minnesota Department of Education Press Release, Feb. 5, 2007, available at http://cfl.state.mn.us/mde/About_MDE/News_Center/Press_Releases/030712, for one of the most thorough reviews of K-12 Chinese language education programs available. See http://confuciusinstitutechicago.org, for information about Chicago’s Chinese Connections program, currently the largest K-12 Chinese language program in the country, with more than 8,000 students enrolled in Chinese classes in the Chicago public schools.
  16. Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, is lucky to have a relatively large population of Mandarin-speaking Chinese and Chinese-Americans, and therefore a number of established heritage school programs; many cities simply do not have the luxury of such a pool of native or non-native speakers of Mandarin Chinese.
  17. It should be noted that a pair of charter elementary schools offering Chinese have also recently opened their doors in Atlanta – Imagine Wesley International Charter School and the New Life Academy.
  18. E-mail to author from Amy Hayes, Coordinator of School Improvement, Whitfield County Schools, Sept. 27, 2007
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