Chinese on Menu for Elementary Kids
By YULIYA CHERNOVA
Spurred by separate pushes by the U.S. and Chinese governments, more schools in Greater New York have begun offering—even requiring—the study of Mandarin at the elementary level.
Starting this month, Manhattan's New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math, or NEST+m, replaced Spanish with Mandarin for kindergarten through fifth grades. Some city elementary schools, such as PS 310 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have launched Chinese bilingual programs aimed at native Chinese speakers. Others, such as as PS 20 on the Lower East Side, have opted for dual-language programs, where half of the class is fluent in English and the other half is fluent in Mandarin. The programs this year add to about 25 bilingual and dual-language ones that already existed in the city, according to Matthew Mittenthal, city Department of Education spokesman.
"Mandarin is a language that has symbols that are very different than our written language," said Olga Livanis, the principal of NEST+m, a K-12 gifted-and-talented school on the Lower East Side. "The more difficult, the earlier a child needs to learn it."
The rise in Mandarin comes amid increased federal funding for programs that teach it and from school administrators' recognition of China's growing influence in the global economy. China is also cultivating the study of Mandarin abroad, sponsoring teachers, materials and visits to China.
As of the end of 2008 school year, about 50 public and two dozen private schools in New York City had Chinese classes, according to Robin Harvey, coordinator of a Chinese-language teachers program at New York University. Since then, the number has increased by 5% to 10%, she said.
Several new programs certifying teachers in instruction of Chinese as a second language are launching around the city. NYU, for example, had more than 42 graduates from its master's program over the past three years, said Ms. Harvey. "Most of our teachers once they graduate find work in the New York metropolitan area," she said.
Chinese is one of of the languages considered to be critical to the U.S. national security by the U.S. Department of Education, which helps schools secure funding if they agree to teach the languages.
Last year, New Rochelle began offering Mandarin in its middle and high schools, and this year the language is offered to some kindergarteners and fourth-graders. Being aware that "we could possibly get support to introduce" Mandarin played a role in starting the language up throughout the school system, said Richard E. Organisciak, the Westchester County district's superintendent. New Rochelle received about $1.5 million in federal grants, and the approval for the money came within weeks of application, said Mr. Organisciak.
Support from China is also helping Chinese instruction grow around the country. U.S. schools are able to get a guest teacher for two years sponsored by the Chinese government via a program with the College Board.
In New York State, only two schools have guest teachers, whose stipends and international travel is sponsored by the Chinese government, while housing and administrative fees are taken on by school districts. Both New York guest teachers starting this school year at Medgar Evers College Preparatory school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the Brewster School District, about 50 miles north of the city. In Connecticut, nine guest-teachers are working, all having started in 2009 or this year, according to the College Board. New Jersey has two guest teachers, who also arrived in the past year or so.
But Rocco Tomazic, superintendent of Linden, N.J., school district, said that he chose to decline and find permanent teachers. NEST also found a teacher on its own and is paying for the teacher out of its own budget.
Several schools in Greater New York are part of a new grant program called the Confucius Classroom, sponsored by the Chinese government through the New York-based Asia Society, which selects programs that could serve as models for Chinese-language instruction. These classrooms are matched with partner schools in China for joint projects and exchanges and are provided with teacher development.
Students work on pronunciation and geography of cities in China by coloring in their own maps.
Offering Chinese was a leap of faith, said Linden's Mr. Tomazic, "in a working-class town that has no significant number of Chinese." But a recent "China night" filled a school auditorium for students singing in Mandarin, he said. Now about 400 elementary-school children in the Linden school district are learning Mandarin.
For James Lee, principal of PS 20, a public school on the Lower East Side, introducing a dual-language program this year in two kindergarten classes was a matter of satisfying the needs of the growing number of children learning English in the district the school serves, he said. About 47 children, mixed English and Mandarin speakers, are enrolled this year, studying a full-day in Mandarin, followed by a day in English.
PS 20 received applications from English-speaking students in upper Manhattan and Brooklyn, said Mr. Lee. "The interest is huge," he said. Preference was given to children in District 1.
Two weeks into the program, things are going well, said Mr. Lee. He called the program, "a fairly challenging setting." "To be taught in a language that you only comprehend in small amounts, that's a lot to ask of a five year old."