Classrooms open doors to Chinese language

FLINTON — She was a little Spanish-speaking girl from Ecuador, but her 10-week stay sparked a huge change in this rural community.

“She spoke no English. She was 8 years old. I watched her learn English and go home and translate,” said Dennis Bruno, superintendent of Glendale School District. “That’s what really forced me into doing this. We need to get our kids involved in more languages at an earlier age.”

The experience sent Bruno on a global journey that introduced foreign teachers in an unlikely place and opened students’ minds to another culture.

Now Glendale, a one-building, 100-square-mile, 862-student school district about an hour west of State College, has one of the most unique language programs in the state.

Leading the charge is June Chen, who was recruited by Bruno from Taiwan to teach Mandarin Chinese to students in the district that straddles Clearfield and Cambria counties. Since September, Chen has taught all Chinese classes in kindergarten through 12th grades. She is also overseeing five student teachers, all of whom are from Taiwan.

Few public schools in Pennsylvania offer Chinese to any grade, let alone in elementary through high school. In Glendale, it’s been a revelation for both sides.

While Chen teaches her pupils the four tones of the Chinese language, Bruno teaches Chen how to drive.

Her student teachers, who were scheduled to return to Taiwan this weekend, have lived with host families in a rural area devoid of mass transit, strip malls or 24-hour stores. They’ve seen snow for the first time, and bunnies and deer in the wild instead of in Taiwan zoos.

“Hunting season? We never heard of that,” Chen said. “It’s forbidden to carry a gun in Taiwan. But you sell guns at Wal-Mart.”

But Glendale’s become “like family,” student teacher Amanda Lee said.

“Everybody is nice,” she said. “I am very thankful our school came here. It’s a good experience.”

Learning Chinese in time

In Glendale’s elementary wing last month, Angi Wang started a Chinese lesson by holding up a cardboard replica of a clock. “Dian” means “o’clock,” she explained.

The 19-year-old student teacher spun the clock’s little hand from one number to another, “What time is it?” she asked her second-grade class.

The kids shouted the time in Chinese. “Louder! Louder,” Wang said, as the youngsters chimed in.

In kindergarten, first and second grades, such Chinese classes are held for 20 minutes, two times each week. In grades three through six, classes are 30 minutes per week. And in high school, students have the option of taking two 45-minute classes twice a week.

It’s all paid for with a state accountability grant.

High schoolers spend more time in Chinese classes than the elementary pupils. But the older students say they’ve noticed that the younger children know more than they do.

“I have little cousins here. They pick up on the Chinese so fast. It’s amazing,” Amanda Hegarty, 16, said. “They know more than me. They are shooting out sentences and everything.”

Hegarty’s family hosted one of the student teachers. And she is one of five Glendale juniors planning a free, 10-day trip to Taiwan in July.

Bruno organized a partnership between Glendale and Ming Chuan University that allowed the student teachers to come to Glendale. The same partnership will allow the Glendale juniors to visit Taiwan. A local business is sponsoring their airfare.

Bruno decided to invest in Chinese instruction because he said it’s a language kids need to know to compete in today’s global world. His district is also teaching Spanish in elementary school.

“Learning Chinese is important. With careers, you can get a lot of money,” said 16-year-old Miranda Martz, another junior learning Chinese this year.

“Even just to get into college,” 17-year-old Sarah Troxell added. “To say you know Chinese, it’s a big thing.”

But it’s also a tremendous challenge, they said. It’s not like Spanish, in which some words are similar to English ones.

“Like how do you spell, ‘shi’?” Martz said, pronouncing it similar to, “sure.” “It’s S-R-I, and it could mean all these different things. It could be 10. It could be ‘to be.’ It’s totally different.”

The ‘Chinese connection’

When Chen first arrived at Glendale in mid-September, she didn’t have a place to live. She didn’t know how to drive. She didn’t really know much at all about Flinton, where credit cards aren’t accepted at gas station pumps, all the roads are two lanes and the tiny downtown has a gun shop but few other stores.

She lived with Bruno and his wife until she got a Pennsylvania license and an apartment in Bellwood, near Tyrone.

“In the beginning, I thought driving 30 minutes to work in the morning was crazy,” Chen said. “But now I’m used to it.”

There’s a lot that Chen and her student teachers had to get used to. For starters, they are polishing their English every day.

“I’m pretty impressed at how well they are doing. For most of them, this is the first time out of the country,” said Chen, who comes across as a big sister to her colleagues.

Education in Pennsylvania is not like education in Taiwan, where sports and extracurricular activities always take a back seat to academics.

In Taiwan, school starts at 7:30 a.m. sharp and ends about 5 p.m. Then there is “cram school,” an after-school academic program. That can last until 9 p.m. or later, they said. Students study on weekends and holidays.

“That is why we are so far behind,” Bruno said. “We can’t complete. We only have 180 school days and go seven hours each day.”

Until the language program kicked off, Bruno said many of the elementary children in his district thought everyone in the world spoke English.

He plans to continue the Chinese program. He can get an emergency permit allowing Chen to teach next year because so few teachers of Chinese are available.

But Bruno hopes the state will change its process. Chen can’t get certified in Pennsylvania unless she attends a Pennsylvania college or university or works through a special partnership.

It’s not just about teaching kids Chinese, Bruno said, but immersing them in the culture.

“In Taiwan, there are aspects of the United States’ culture — McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But here,” Wang said, “the only Chinese connection is us.”

Dena Pauling can be reached at 231-4619.