Non-Asians Show a Growing Interest in Chinese Courses

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 29 18:45:24 UTC 2006

from the NYTimes, November 29, 2006

Non-Asians Show a Growing Interest in Chinese Courses

SAN FRANCISCO With its booming economy and aspirations to expand its
global influence, China may have achieved a victory in American
classrooms. Take the private Chinese-American International School here,
which runs from prekindergarten through eighth grade and offers
instruction in all subjects from math to music half in Mandarin and half
in English. The curriculum also includes Chinese history, culture and
language studies, and in the 25 years since the school was founded, it has
attracted mainly Asian-American children. But in the past few years, it
has seen rapid growth in the enrollment of non-Asians.

For example, five years ago, the school was 57 percent Asian-American, but
this year it is only 49 percent Asian-American, said Sharline Chiang, its
spokeswoman, adding that more non-Asian-Americans have been applying in
recent years. Andrew Corcoran, the head of the school, said that in the
last three to four years, applications from white and Indian-American
families have more than doubled, though he declined to give exact figures.
Ms. Chiang also said that this was the first year in which the
prekindergarten class had more white children, 36 percent, than
Asian-Americans, 32 percent.

School officials attribute the changes largely to a growing awareness of
China as a global economic force, and to a strong sense among parents that
learning Chinese could help their children professionally. As Mr. Corcoran
said, studying Chinese is looked at as a long-term benefit. For similar
reasons, Chinese language classes are increasingly popular across the
country in public schools. Shuhan Wang, executive director of the Asia
Societys Chinese Language Initiative, who has written about the growth of
Chinese language studies in the United States, said several states
including Kentucky, Minnesota, Washington, Ohio, Kansas and West Virginia
were developing curriculums for public schools.

Even so-called heritage schools, which have historically provided
immigrant children with Chinese language and culture instruction on
weekends and after public school, are gaining non-Asian students. For
example, until three years ago, all but five or six of the roughly 120
students at the Chinese School of Delaware were Chinese-Americans who
spoke Chinese at home, said Tommy Lu, the schools principal. This year,
nearly 30 students are non-Chinese, he said. At the Lansing Chinese School
in Michigan, also a heritage school, officials saw a wave of new interest
about five years ago from American couples adopting babies from China,
said Dennie Hoopingarner, the principal, so the school opened a preschool
and created a curriculum for children who do not speak Chinese at home.
Today, a third of the students, half of them non-Asian, take those
classes, he said.

Mr. Hoopingarner said some non-Asian children attended the school because
of an ambitious feeling on the part of the parents who are interested in
Chinas playing an important role in the world. Parents are also starting
new Mandarin programs when they cannot find them in their communities.
Last year, in Livingston, N.J., Sharon Huang, a former marketing
executive, founded Bilingual Buds, a Mandarin-immersion preschool, for her
twin sons, who are now 3. Ms. Huang, whose husband is not Chinese, started
the school in her home with 10 pupils and has since expanded it to 72
pupils and 7 teachers in a rented space in a church. The school is
considering adding a kindergarten class next fall, she said.

Judith Carlson, 41, a software consultant who lives in Verona, N.J., pays
about $400 a month to send her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Victoria,
to Bilingual Buds. Mrs. Carlsons older children, Ryan, 15, and Sarah, 13,
have been studying Mandarin at their public school since first grade. The
children are now teaching their parents to count to 10 and speak basic
words in Mandarin. Its going to be a big advantage for them, Mrs. Carlson
said. I think no matter what you do in life, if you have some kind of
specialty that sets you apart from other people, that makes you more
marketable. When Mandarin, the official language of China, was first
offered in Chicago public schools in 1999, about 250 students enrolled,
said Bob Davis, director of the Chicago school systems Chinese Connections
Program.  Today, nearly 6,000 public school students, out of roughly
421,000, study Mandarin, he said, the majority black or Hispanic.

I get calls every day from parents asking how they can get their students
in the program, or how their local schools can offer such a program, Mr.
Davis said, pointing out that the bulk of our students have no background
or exposure to Chinese language and culture. In Connecticut this year,
about 3,000 students, most non-Asian, are studying Mandarin in about 16
public schools, said Mary Ann Hansen of the states Department of
Education, a 10-fold increase from 300 students in 2004. Another
half-dozen schools are considering offering Mandarin for the first time
next fall, she said.

About half the teachers for the program come through a partnership with
the Chinese government, Ms. Hansen added. Their salaries are paid by their
own government, but school districts cover living expenses. We dont have
enough Chinese teachers locally, she said. Michael Patterson, a high
school chemistry teacher, has four children ages 6 to 13 at the
Chinese-American school here. He said the academic program attracted him,
but he also noted that people say Chinese is going to be a pay-off. Still,
having children at this kind of school can be a challenge for a parent. We
cant help with homework, Mr. Patterson said.

Ms. Chiang, the schools spokeswoman, said parents like Mr. Patterson
gamely participated in celebrations like the Mandarin speech festival,
public speaking contests in which students read in Mandarin something they
have written or an excerpt from a book. The parents sit and patiently
listen, she said, supporting their children even though they dont
understand a word.

Winnie Hu contributed reporting from New York.


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