District to add language classes
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 19, 2006
Global demand behind push for new selections
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.