Mandarin classes open a world in Hub

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By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / July 4, 2011

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Mandarin teacher Li Wang sat in a chair small enough for a 4-year-old, her enthusiastic students sitting on the classroom carpet in a separate square. She placed a picture of a chicken on the board, pointed, and asked:

“Zhe shi shen me?’’ (What is this?)

In unison, the prekindergarten class answered: “Ji!’’ (Chicken!)

Such classes have usually been taught in suburban classrooms and prep schools. But this is no suburb: It’s a Hyde Park charter school, where most students are black or Latino, and many from low-income homes. They have yet to perfect English, let alone Chinese.

Chinese is becoming increasingly popular in the nation’s urban schools, where educators hope the language will instill a global perspective in children whose life experiences often don’t extend beyond their city’s borders. And in many urban schools, students already speak languages at home that are traditionally the content of foreign-language programs.

Other than Chinese food and the cartoon “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,’’ Gwen Manigault said, her son, Marcellus, and his 8-year-old sister had little exposure to other cultures before their first Chinese lessons at Boston Renaissance Charter School in Hyde Park. “There really hasn’t been an opportunity to get that’’ for them, she said in a phone interview.

She and her husband are “trying to pay for after-care and a mortgage, and that doesn’t leave much for traveling. I always thought they were going to get Spanish, but knowing the world is changing and becoming more global, I’m happy.’’

The Asia Society in New York City, which sponsors Chinese programs in 60 schools and districts nationwide, said it has seen more applications from urban and rural areas.

“We’ve definitely seen a very big shift because, let’s say 10 or more years ago, most students who were studying Chinese in the US were in one of two groups: heritage learners or students at more elite private schools,’’ said Chris Livaccari, the society’s associate director of education and Chinese language initiatives.

It’s critical that Boston schools teach non-Western languages in order for their students to compete with peers outside the district, said Yu-Lan Lin, director of the school system’s world language program. Students, she said, “really interact in their immediate environment. We want to expand their life experiences outside of Boston, and one way to do it is for them to study international cultures.’’

Because many families struggle financially, paying for expensive language programs is a luxury parents can’t afford, and that’s where schools must step in, Lin said. Boston public schools started teaching Mandarin in the 1980s at Snowden International School at Copley, one of the high schools more sought after by parents and students.

The district’s Chinese language program has gone through growing pains, with some schools eliminating it because of funding, or offering it to only high-achieving students. But Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, which has some of the state’s lowest standardized test scores, recently implemented Mandarin instruction for its youngest learners, the 11th district school to offer the program.

“In the urban setting, we always talk about very limited resources,’’ Lin said. “With other more affluent suburban schools, they have more resources. They have funding to hire more teachers, and we don’t. That limits our students’ choices.’’

Roger Harris, superintendent of Boston Renaissance, a tuition-free public charter school that operates with more autonomy than a traditional public school, said he plans to expand his school’s year-old program with the help of a $1.3 million federal grant. This year, pre-K through first grade have Mandarin, and the program will expand incrementally to all grades.

Harris, a veteran educator born and raised in Boston, said he met resistance from some staff when he first proposed teaching Chinese. Some staff members, he said, wanted to limit Mandarin lessons to students who were academically on grade level, had proficient standardized test scores, and did not have special needs. (About 60 percent of the school’s 1,100 students are at or above grade level in reading and about 53 percent are at that level in math, according to the state education department.)

“There are myths about students’ abilities,’’ Harris said in a conference room that doubles as office space for the school’s four Chinese instructors. “Sometimes we underestimate students’ abilities. But the obstacles that some adults have to keep kids from learning just have been eliminated.’’

In the school year just ended, Renaissance students had 30-minute Chinese lessons three times a week. In the final weeks, teachers spent their time reviewing previous lessons.

To ask seven of Wang’s 17 students what they like best about Chinese class is to hear a range of animated answers about learning to say “hi’’ and “goodbye,’’ wearing animal masks, and saying “butterfly’’ in Chinese just because it feels so good to say.

“I teach my mommy and daddy to count in Chinese - up to 10,’’ said Bobby Silva, inadvertently starting a competition among his classmates about who taught their parents to count the highest in Chinese. One hundred was the winner, to which Luke Harris said: “You know you can’t. You’re just kidding.’’

But all joking quickly subsided when the conversation turned to what they dislike about Chinese. “What I don’t like about Chinese is the Chinese teacher doesn’t pick me as the leader. They pick someone else as the leader, and it’s not fair,’’ said a fidgety Nylai Epps, who likes wearing the “special dress from China’’ (a traditional dancing dress) but not the duck mask that Wang uses to reinforce their animal lessons. “I wanted to wear the bunny mask because I love bunnies and bunnies don’t even bite.’’

Orchard Gardens started its Chinese language program this school year for two reasons, said principal Andrew Bott. “Number one, language is so important. It just opens up opportunities. And number two, coming into a school that has some of the lowest MCAS scores in the state, it just speaks to our belief that our kids can master some really challenging things.’’

Educators say early exposure to Chinese is critical. Chinese takes nearly three times as long as Spanish to master, according to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats. It takes six months for an American to achieve proficiency in Spanish, and longer than a year and a half for Chinese, the State Department said.

Students have class once a week with Qiaoyun Mao, who also teaches at four other schools. While 60 minutes of instruction in a 2,100-minute school week might not sound like a lot, the impact of Mao’s efforts was evident as she rushed to a first-grade classroom. Lined up in the hallway were waving kindergartners, screaming “Ni hao!’’ (Hello!)

Inside the classroom, Mao acted out the day’s lesson by dancing and singing and pretending to swim and play basketball to help about 20 energetic first-graders learn the words for those activities. Then, she let them get in on the fun by pairing them up, with one student acting out the activity and the other guessing what the classmate was doing- all in Mandarin.

When asked after lessons ended if Chinese class was fun, students gave a resounding “Yes!’’ Why?

“Because we get to know Chinese that we didn’t know before,’’ Kory Garcia said matter-of-factly.

“We learn new stuff, [like] that every year on the third of February . . .’’ Bryanna Owens started, before a classmate interrupted.

“You mean the second of February,’’ Shahi Smart said.

“No,’’ Bryanna said.

“Yeah. February second is the New Year. They do a dragon.’’

“Oh. Right,’’ Bryanna said.

Actually, the date of the Lunar New Year varies depending on when the new moon appears from late January to mid-February. This year, it was Feb. 3. But the fact that they were debating about a place few knew much about - save for Americanized Chinese cuisine, television, or an occasional trip to Chinatown - is partly the point.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson2.