Local schools use Chinese classes to help students prepare for global economy

First-graders performed a song and skit about pulling a turnip firmly stuck in the ground, asking for additional help until the vegetable broke free.

The Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School students sang loudly in Chinese, part of the curriculum for every student there, in grades kindergarten to eight. They repeated lines of the song in each verse, key to helping young people learn new languages, according to one of their teachers.

The performance was part of Wednesday’s Chinese New Year and International Mother Languages Day event at the school.

When the school formed in 2005, a parent survey rated Chinese and Spanish as languages of highest interest, so those were incorporated into the school’s curriculum. The Bellefonte Area School District recently has decided to also add Chinese language and culture instruction, starting this fall with kindergarten, eighth-grade and high school students.

Other local schools also offer Chinese, including a middle school language and culture program at the Nittany Valley Charter School in State College, and level I and II Chinese and Mandarin Chinese in the Penns Valley School District.

Administrators say it’s important to expose students, especially at a young age, to different languages and cultures, through classes, exchanges and video conferences. They cite an increasingly global economy as one of the main reasons those experiences will help students, as well as improvements to students’ native language and other studies.

According to 2010 U.S. census data for Centre County, 2.2 percent of the population, or 3,409 people, are Chinese, the fourth-highest population by race. Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, and is listed as a “critical language” by the U.S. government, considered crucial to national security and economic competitiveness.

“Our goal is to develop global competencies and increase awareness and understanding so our students can better compete, communicate and contribute within a global community,” said Bellefonte Assistant Superintendent Michelle Saylor.

Saylor brought forward the idea after seeing success at other districts where she has worked. Bellefonte also may offer an adult class and library program, if there’s enough interest, but the main goal is to expand Chinese instruction at the elementary level.

“That’s where they learn the quickest,” she said. “Our younger students didn’t seem to struggle with the character development. It was something they adapted to quite easily.”

Saylor said there is excitement about starting the program and that administrators will monitor the interest and success of the pilot classes before considering expansion.

She also wants to create a “sister school relationship” with schools in China. That also took place at other districts where Saylor has worked, and she said student exchanges were an enlightening experience. She presented to the school board last week the idea of sending middle school Principal Karen Krisch to China this summer to begin making those connections for Bellefonte.

Young Scholars CEO Levent Kaya said he’s seen students exhibit more success with their own languages and with problem solving in their Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, which he attributes, in part, to the school’s foreign language curriculum.

He said Chinese, in particular, will create connections for them in the future.

“China is one of the superpowers now,” he said. “Any occupation, basically, will benefit from other languages.”

Older students sometimes struggle with the classes when they join the school in sixth or seventh grade, but Kaya said he thinks the school is doing the right thing.

Tonya Pick’s 14-year-old son, David, started at Young Scholars in fifth grade. An eighth-grader now, Tonya Pick said he “absolutely loves” Chinese, and said so from the first day of school. She said he didn’t have any trouble with the language.

“When he speaks, it sometimes surprises me,” she said. And because she and David’s dad didn’t have that opportunity while in school, she said it’s something that’s “just his.”

Pick said David’s teacher asked if he had ever traveled to China, because he spoke the language so well. He had not.

“It could be that we have native Chinese speakers teaching the class,” Tonya Pick said.

Kathy Miller, one of the two Chinese teachers at the school, has taught there for six years and originally comes from Taiwan. She said younger children tend to become more fluent and speak with less of an American accent.

“They don’t have the fear to learn another language,” she said.

And from the first day of class with kindergarten students, Miller speaks to them only in Chinese, making movements as she speaks, telling and showing them to “stand up,” for example.

“And we do it every day,” she said. “The younger kids need some movement. They can’t just sit there. They’re having fun with it.”

Students also learn about Chinese culture by performing skits. They pretend the classroom is a Chinese restaurant and act accordingly as waiters and customers.

In Bellefonte, two Chinese scholars from Wuhan University, in the southeastern part of the country, will spend the next academic year in the school district and community. Their salaries are paid by the Chinese government and the district places them with host families

Saylor said the benefit to teachers coming from China is that they bring the culture with them and can share that with students, further enriching the experience.

“Our community isn’t just Bellefonte anymore,” Saylor said. “The economics are tied together, the educational systems are tied together. To not be able to communicate across cultures, if a child can’t do it, I think it’s really going to hinder their success as an adult.”