District to add language classes
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 19, 2006

Global demand behind push for new selections

Josh Kelley

By next school year, Mesa could have a new public school where students in Grades K-8 would be exposed to intensive training in a variety of foreign languages, including Mandarin Chinese.

This fall at Dobson High, students will take courses in Mandarin and Japanese.

Within the next year, elementary and junior high schools that feed into Dobson could be teaching their students to speak Mandarin, as well. This month, Michael Cowan, associate superintendent for Mesa Public Schools, returned from a trip to China, where he sought to learn more about teaching Mesa students the Chinese language and culture.

The school district's push to expose students to world languages is coming amid mounting global influence from China and calls from the U.S. government for more people capable of speaking key foreign languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Russian.

Cowan said his trip gave him a more intimate understanding of China's influence on the United States, punctuating the value of teaching American students to interact with China economically and politically.

Mesa students appear ready to learn more about China, which has the world's largest population.

Over the last year, the school district's Community Education Department offered a Mandarin course, completed by 17 people, mostly high school students.

Dozens of Dobson students have expressed interest in taking Chinese or Japanese, Principal Matt Gehrman said.

At the proposed new school, students in Grades K-8 would be taught from a curriculum with an international perspective and an emphasis on learning foreign languages.

Cowan said the school is in the "planning-design-proposal stage" with a proposed location next to Fremont Junior High's football field at Power and Brown roads.

Cowan said the curriculum would parallel Westwood High's International Baccalaureate Programme, which began last fall and puts students through rigorous courses that expose them to international issues and languages.
Students earn extensive college credit and have a better chance of acceptance to elite universities.

By January, Sunridge Learning Center near Dobson High could be the first school to teach elementary students Chinese in the district if federal money becomes available, said Suzie DePrez, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The district hopes to pay for teaching Chinese in elementary and junior high schools that feed into Dobson with a federal grant worth $600,000 over three years from the federal Foreign Language Assistance Program.

If the money is awarded, other elementary schools, such as Sirrine and Pomeroy, would be next to begin teaching Chinese along with Rhodes and Hendrix junior highs as early as next fall.

Nearly $23 million in federal grant money is allotted this year for elementary schools to get students learning difficult languages early. The Bush administration wants to spend $114 million on the program next year.

DePrez said it takes twice as long to learn Chinese as it does a romance language, such as Spanish or French.

"That's why it's real critical that we have some kind of a K-8 component to this," DePrez said.

To truly learn a foreign language, students must interact with native speakers and even visit their homeland, Cowan said.

"Your ability to learn any language is limited by the four walls of your classroom," he said.

Chinese courses could be expanded to other schools elsewhere in Mesa. Red Mountain High is a likely candidate. Students could possibly learn Chinese through a distance-learning course via teleconference with a teacher at Dobson, DePrez said.

This spring, 37 percent of the 13,697 high school students in Mesa Public Schools took a foreign language course.

Cowan's trip to China was sponsored by the Chinese government and College Board, which is best known for providing schools with SAT and Advanced Placement tests.

Cowan visited schools and universities in Beijing and Changsha, capital of Hunan province.

Chinese students are expected to learn English beginning in third grade and through high school, Cowan said.

"It's infused into the program just like mathematics and reading," he said.
"It's an expected part of the curriculum."

To do the same with Mandarin in the United States is no simple task.

"Our biggest challenge, to tell you the truth, is getting the qualified people to teach those programs," Cowan said. "Part of this partnership between the Chinese government and the College Board is to figure out how to do some kind of international teacher exchange program."

He said it's difficult to find qualified teachers who know Chinese and meet state and federal requirements for certification to teach in public schools.