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Ariz. schools responding to push for Chinese  (6/21/2006)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Middle school students at Scottsdale Basis, a charter school, already are learning Mandarin.
  3. Phoenix Country Day School, a private school in Paradise Valley, received
  4. 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 Education spokeswoman.

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 kindergarten.

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 basics.

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 Japanese.

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."