Part 3 of Special Report Series Tucked away in the outskirts of the Dobson High School campus, inside a portable classroom formerly used as a science lab, sits the seed of what the Mesa Unified School District is hoping will expand into a groundbreaking Chinese language program.
For now, just six teenagers arrive at Gavin Regnaert’s classroom every day. By the end of the school year, they will learn how to read and write roughly 275 Chinese characters, in both traditional and simplified style.
Regnaert spends half his day teaching Mandarin and Japanese. The other half, he spends creating curriculum plans for a program Mesa hopes will expand past an introductory course, as it positions itself to become a leader in Chinese curriculum in the state.
“We’re looking at how we can prepare our children for the global economic market,” said Mike Cowan, assistant superintendent for education services. “It’s similar to what we’re doing with our biotechnology labs that we’re starting up at our high schools. What we are attempting to do is prepare our students with opportunities for them to be successful in college programs that will prepare them for the future job market.”
This year, the Mesa district became the first East Valley district to offer the language.
But officials in other districts are recognizing the need for more focus on China, with some considering expanding their language offerings, too.
Academic Decathlon, the rigorous nationwide competition where students compete in multiple subject areas, chose the theme “China and its Influence on the World,” for this year’s competition.
Some students from Paradise Valley High School’s team will take a student tour of China this year to prepare.
At Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain High School, teacher Steve Barber has organized a noncredit night Mandarin class for students for the second year in a row, and he’s planning an Honors East Asian Studies class for next year.
Much of the China push is coming from the federal level, said Jeannine Kuropatkin, who teaches geography at Rhodes Junior High School in Mesa.
“On one hand, the (United States) wants to keep good relations and business with China, but on the other hand, it needs to compete for business and oil,” she said.
Some compare the China push to what happened in the 1950s, when the launch of Sputnik led to ramped-up Russian studies.
Earlier this year, President George W. Bush introduced a plan to increase the study of nations he considers “critical” to the United States economy and security.
But some parents and children see learning Mandarin as a ticket to future wealth, due to China’s booming economy, Cowan said. Other students want to learn about China because it’s trendy.
“There are more Chinese films in Hollywood.” Regnaert said. “Students are fascinated by the characters, they think they look so cool — and that’s fine with me. Anything you can use to hook kids and get them interested in studying Asia.”
The Mesa district has applied for a federal foreign language assistance grant, which would help it expand the Chinese language program from high school to the elementary level, said Suzi DePrez, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
The grants would come from roughly $24 million allocated earlier this year to create incentives for schools to teach “critical need” languages like Mandarin.
If granted, the funds would allow Mesa to teach Mandarin at the elementary level, which could become a focus of the new academy that will open near Power and Brown roads next year, Cowan said.
Cowan traveled to China over the summer on a tour sponsored by the College Board and the Chinese government, which hoped to impress upon American educators the power that China plays in the world and the value of having Chinese language and culture lessons in schools, he said.
He was able to look at Chinese curriculum, and find out more information about possible teacher exchanges, he said.
MORE THAN CULTURE
While Chinese languages classes are rare, the push to study China is statewide.
When educators drafted new state social studies standards, adopted last year, they addressed China in greater detail than in previous standards, said Liz Hinde, an assistant professor of elementary education at Arizona State University.
“(They) were very cognizant of the growing role of China in the world and the need for our students to understand Eastern culture,” Hinde said.
Standards say that second-graders should recognize Chinese innovations like pagodas and fireworks, while sixth-graders should know the importance of the Huang He River Valley and Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di.
But some educators are doubtful that the standards alone will be able to jumpstart the study of China.
Geography is often at risk of being overshadowed by an increasing emphasis on math, reading and writing, Kuropatkin said.
And when it comes to competing with China, she said she sees more of an emphasis on teaching harder math, science and technology — not necessarily on teaching Chinese culture.
But she isn’t about to give up.
Years ago, the study of China may have started and ended by memorizing facts about the Great Wall, but Kuropatkin takes it much further.
After attending a seminar with the National Consortium for Teaching Asia in 2003, she created a lesson plan that uses China’s one-child policy to teach math and statistics.
She believes that it is vital for her students to understand the interdependence between the Chinese and American economies — which she does by asking her students to look at the tags on their clothes to find out where they were made.