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As China's power grows, so do Chinese programs in public schools

EASTHAMPTON, Mass. --In Alaska, students are calling their teacher "lao shi." In Illinois, they're learning that one plus one equals "er." And in western Massachusetts, kindergarten students who can sing their ABCs will soon start honing Mandarin accents.

Chinese, it seems, is becoming the new Latin in public schools.

At least 27 states offer Chinese language classes in either elementary, middle or high schools. And according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C., there are 12 public and private immersion schools across the country where most subjects are taught exclusively in Mandarin Chinese.

"It's about jobs and a world economy," said Richard Alcorn, who spearheaded the first Chinese immersion charter school in Massachusetts with his wife, Kathleen Wang. "There are unbelievable opportunities to do business in China, so there's a need for Americans to learn the language so we're not left out."

Alcorn and Wang, who live in Amherst and run an Easthampton business importing English versions of Chinese books, are still looking for a location for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School, which won approval last month from state education officials.

But they have so far received 50 applications for the 44 kindergarten and first-grade slots the school will have when it opens in the fall.

The school's curriculum calls for 75 percent of the day to be taught in Chinese. As students move through grades two through five, the subjects will be evenly split between Chinese and English instruction. And sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will take a quarter of their courses in Chinese.

As in other areas around the country, some of the push for Chinese instruction is coming from families who want their children to learn the language of their heritage.

"But the major force behind it is coming from parents who don't speak Chinese and want their children to be exposed to it," said Zhining Chin, a coordinator at the Eisenhower Elementary School, a public Chinese immersion school set to open in September in Hopkins, Minn. "They recognize the importance of China as a world power."

Dan O'Shea, of Northampton, is considering sending his 5-year-old daughter to the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School.

"We think that learning to read and write it will help stimulate her brain and make her a better learner," he said.

O'Shea and his wife, who don't speak Chinese, had concerns about how they would help their daughter with homework. But he said school officials have convinced them that parents will get enough support so they can communicate with their children about what they're learning and be involved in school projects.

Shuhan Wang, the executive director of Chinese language initiatives for the New York-based Asia Society, said the surge in Chinese language classes started around 2003.

"Anyone who reads the newspaper realizes that you can't ignore Asia anymore," she said. "American education has always been Euro-centric, and now we're realizing how inadequate our perspective on Asia has been."

In the decade following the Cold War, Americans largely maintained their suspicions about the world's most populous country, said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

"Not too long ago one thought `made in China' meant cheap items that weren't of high quality," Watanabe said. "Now, when one thinks of China, they think of innovation, the cutting edge of technology and an expanding economy. Things have changed mightily as China has opened itself up to us and we've realized that you can't ignore a place that has one in four people on the globe."

And the new educational focus on Chinese falls in line with the priorities of the federal government, which handed out about $9 million to schools working to bolster Chinese language courses last year. Those grants from the Department of Education are part of just one federal program aimed at getting public schools to teach "critical languages" such as Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.

President Bush last year announced a national security language initiative to step up instruction in those languages, but Congress has yet to fund the $114 million program.

People developing Chinese language programs say the federal money is an obvious help, and the government's growing commitment will go a long way to help popularize places like the Pioneer Valley Immersion Charter School, they say.

"School districts respond to money," said Alcorn, who won't be able to apply for any federal grants until the charter school opens. "So it's hard to imagine you're not going to see more Chinese language programs when the money becomes more available."