Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Students flock to Chinese classes

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School students were a few months into Spanish lessons before winter break. Then classes changed.
They’re now learning Chinese.
When a Spanish teacher unexpectedly left the Kimberly Avenue middle school, school administration saw an opportunity for the change in curriculum. They hired Taiwan-native Chia-Lien Griffin to teach Mandarin Chinese.
Only two students asked to stick with Spanish. According to school Principal Peggy Moore, many more asked to transfer into the new class.
They are in good company.
According to Mary Ann Hansen, world language consultant for the state Department of Education, Chinese is the fastest growing language in Connecticut schools.
Betsy Ross already has 82 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders studying Chinese, taught by Griffin, and a second teacher, Ma Jitong, hired a few weeks after the school launched its program.
More than 20 districts statewide offer Chinese, and Hansen said she is contacted every week by another district looking to build a program.
Official state numbers show 593 students studied Mandarin last year, but Hansen estimates the number is closer to 3,000. “I’m just not sure how districts are reporting because it’s growing so quickly,” she said.
“I’ve never seen any other language grow as quickly. The growth is phenomenal,” Hansen said. “Students and parents are hearing so much in the media about China and Asia.”
But as the study of Chinese explodes in popularity statewide, trained teachers remain difficult to find.
So difficult that districts such as New Haven are sending representatives to China to recruit visiting teachers to build growing programs.
While Betsy Ross was able to find Griffin through the district’s Saturday seminar program with Yale University, and Ma responded to an advertisement, demand for certified teachers still outstrips supply. Griffin and Ma are both working toward completing their certification. New Haven will be looking overseas as it expands its Chinese program.
New Haven’s foreign language supervisor, Karen DeFur, will visit China to interview teachers, part of the state’s agreement with China to bring visiting teachers to Connecticut. A date for her visit has not been set.
The program here, called the Volunteer Teacher Program, is a financial partnership between the Chinese government and New Haven, with China covering the teacher’s salary and airfare and the host city pitching in for housing and local expenses.
Visiting teachers stay for up to three years, hopefully building the foundation for a program in their district, and giving schools time to find a more permanent replacement, officials said. “It provides a low cost option for districts as they prepare, and it finds time for teachers to get certified,” Hansen said.
There are currently nine teachers visiting the state from China.
New Haven is seeking two visiting teachers to expand its Chinese program into two middle schools and two high schools, DeFur said. Teachers would split time between two schools.
While the specific schools have not been determined, Davis Street School, Troup Middle School and John C. Daniels School have expressed interest.

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