Kindergartners in Mesa may soon be learning two alphabets: one English, the other Chinese.
The federal government's push to get kids to learn tough languages for economic and national security reasons is inching down into primary and middle schools.
In Arizona, several schools are beginning to respond to the new demands.
- Mesa Unified School District will start Mandarin Chinese classes at Dobson High School in August. The district also applied for a new federal grant to begin teaching it in elementary schools.
- Middle school students at Scottsdale Basis, a charter school, already are learning Mandarin.
- Phoenix Country Day School, a private school in Paradise Valley, received
- a donation to begin elementary Mandarin classes in the 2007-08 school year.
Federal officials are driving the effort by targeting nearly $23 million in
grant money this year toward elementary schools, where primary students can
begin the long road to fluency in difficult languages. The administration
has requested five times that amount for next year, or $114 million.
Officials are desperate to fill government jobs with Americans who know
Mandarin as well as other "critical languages" such as Arabic and Farsi,
Hindi and Russian.
"This is a step up in federal efforts to ensure strong language education,
beginning in the earliest grades," said Valerie Smith, U.S. Department of
In addition to grants, federal officials plan to offer incentives for
critical-language teachers. In exchange for help with tuition, college
graduates fluent in such languages would commit themselves to teaching in
elementary and high schools for several years.
It's a grand experiment in a country where less than half of high school
students take a foreign language.
About a dozen students are already signed up for Mandarin at Mesa's Dobson
High. The district is applying for one of the first $300,000 federal grants
to help establish a Mandarin program in surrounding elementary schools. If
the grant is approved in September, classes could begin as early as January
and start in kindergarten.
Liana Clarkson, Mesa's world languages director, said finding Mandarin
teachers in the Phoenix area is not a problem.
"There is a large Chinese-American community out there, second and third
generations," Clarkson said.
For years, research has concluded that younger children learn new languages
quickly. In 1989, the Arizona State Board of Education required
foreign-language courses in all elementary schools. The state Legislature,
however, never funded the mandate, and few schools responded. Some
elementary schools offer Navajo or Spanish, but most do not.
Scottsdale Basis has offered Mandarin for two years. Lee Padover, 13,
tackled it this year in seventh grade.
"Spanish and French would have been a little easier," Padover said. "I took
Mandarin because it's a little bit of a challenge."
Padover is a lover of maps, competed in the state geography bee for three
years and has a fascination with cultures. In San Francisco's Chinatown, he
startled his mother and a waiter by using his Mandarin in a restaurant. The
waiter understood him but corrected his pronunciation. Padover said he hopes
to continue in Mandarin until he is fluent.
Phoenix Country Day School has a cultural exchange program with China. This
year, the school received a $225,000 endowment to begin teaching Mandarin in
the 2007-08 school year. The school isn't sure at what grade it will begin,
but students at the school now begin learning Spanish before they begin
Phoenix public schools are not teaching India's Hindi or Iran's Farsi, and
only private Islamic schools are teaching courses in Arabic.
Fawzia Tung, principal of Arizona Cultural Academy, a K-12 private school in
Phoenix, said her main challenge is finding teachers. Many who are certified
to teach can't speak Arabic well, and fluent speakers aren't always good
teachers. She ended up hiring a consultant to train her teachers.
Most high schools in Arizona cannot muster enough time and money to offer
more than Spanish and French, sometimes German and, occasionally, Latin. Few
students are interested in taking more than the two years of language
required by most universities. Enrollment drops dramatically in the third or
fourth years of any high school language course.
A few districts have enough money to offer a critical language at one high
school but rarely more than one, maybe two, at a time. Opening a new class
often means closing another.
Tempe Accelerated High School, a charter, offered Arabic two years ago to
about a dozen students. But Principal Abelardo Batista said the class cost
too much time and money, which he needed to help all students learn the
Phoenix's Central High School shut down its Russian classes after the Cold
War ended and brought in Mandarin courses five years ago. It still offers
Mesa Unified began offering Japanese in 1989, when martial-arts classes,
movies and related video games where hot. The course ended 10 years later.
But Japanese will start again this year, also at Dobson High School.
Pat Barrett, who plans to retire in a few years as Mesa's Russian teacher,
called Mandarin "the new glamour language."
There was a time in Barrett's 20-year career when he was teaching Russian
over television to 100 students in three Mesa high schools. Shortly after
the Berlin Wall fell, he had no students for four school years. He continued
teaching Latin and Spanish.
"Languages go in fads," Barrett said. "Once the fad wears off, you find
yourself sliding back to the basic three: Spanish, French and German."