A Chinese immersion school in Idaho

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 18th. Good morning, I’m Kent Covington.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. As China grows in economic and political power, many Americans have decided to learn Mandarin. It’s actually the most widely spoken language in the world—even more than English and Spanish.

COVINGTON: In 2009, President Barack Obama announced a goal to have 100-thousand American students studying Mandarin by 20-20. Three years ago, he upped that goal.

OBAMA: And just as children across China learn English we’re starting a new initiative called 1 million strong to encourage 1 million American students to learn Mandarin Chinese over the next five years.

REICHARD: Many of those language learners are college students, but an increasing number are in early elementary grades. According to the U.S. China Strong Foundation, some 255 “K through 12” Chinese immersion programs exist in the U.S.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg recently visited one of those programs in eastern Idaho.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: At first glance, this second grade classroom at South Fork Elementary in Rigby, Idaho, looks like any other. Children sit in blue plastic chairs. Their wooden desks face a white board. Charts and maps decorate the walls.

But this is no ordinary classroom.

AUDIO: Sound of Chinese

It’s a Chinese immersion classroom. That means every subject is taught in Chinese—and the children only speak Chinese.

AUDIO: Sound of Chinese

Here they are learning directions. Right and left. Up and down.

AUDIO: Sound of teacher and students

So how did South Fork Elementary in eastern Idaho end up with a Chinese immersion program, the only one in the state? Michele Southwick directs elementary education in the Jefferson Joint School District. She says district officials saw successful immersion programs in Utah and wanted to offer students a similar opportunity.

This was six years ago and the district didn’t have the funds to start. So enthusiastic parents raised the money to fund the program.

SOUTHWICK: And so we started out with them basically pledging before we started the program that they would actually make donations.

A majority of the parents wanted Spanish.

SOUTHWICK: The Spanish program is like twice as big because there’s a lot of parents who see the practicality of that in our area and with the agriculture. So the people that see the immediate need, those are the parents who wanted the Spanish.

But a minority of parents wanted Chinese. Some of them do business in China or interact with the global economy.

SOUTHWICK: The parents who are looking more of OK, what’s down the road, I would say probably want the Mandarin.

Now more than 300 South Fork students are studying Mandarin.

The program uses a 50-50 model. That means these second graders spend half their day in a Chinese speaking room, and the other half in an English speaking one.

John Holden is president of the non-profit U.S. China Strong Foundation, a group that promotes Chinese language study. He says Americans need to better understand China.

HOLDEN: To be able to interact with, with Chinese people in their own languages is a great icebreaker. We want to connect that to the job markets.

At South Fork elementary district officials say establishing an immersion program isn’t easy. It’s tough to find Chinese teachers who will stay for more than one year. And finding Chinese science, social studies, and math textbooks written for American education standards is also difficult.

District officials have had to overcome resistance from some parents in the district. Natalie Groom, a Chinese immersion parent, says some were suspicious that teachers from China would propagate communism.

GROOM: I remember that meeting when a woman stood up and said, we’re bringing these people to take over the minds of our children. It is a concern for some people.

That fear is not unfounded. U.S. lawmakers have accused the Chinese-government-funded Confucius Institutes of spreading propaganda at American universities.

Some parents might not like the classroom setup. Chinese and American flags get equal billing. The Chinese flag hangs to the right of the whiteboard. The American flag to the left. And above the whiteboard, there’s a world map. It shows Asia at the center not the U.S.

But the parents I spoke with aren’t concerned. Parents like Carlos Mireles. He says embracing a country’s language doesn’t mean you have to embrace that country’s government.

MIRELES: You’ve got to understand that there’s, there’s a difference between a government’s mentality and the people of that country and their language. Their country is full of, of history and beautiful things.

Learning Chinese is hard—but in the past five years only one child has dropped out of the program for educational reasons.

Parents say when the going gets tough, they make sure their children understand how Mandarin will help their futures. Carlos Mireles’ son is in the 4th grade. He wants to create a real life Iron Man suit when he grows up.

MIRELES: And so we laid out a plan for him. We told him things that he could do as far as going into the Air Force. Um, and then also a lot of technology is really high end in places like China and Japan. Knowing one of those languages can open up doors.

Michele Southwick says the district hopes to expand the program into the middle school next year—and then the high school. She’s hopeful having a second language like Chinese will open new doors for students.

SOUTHWICK: It’s the opportunities that we’re creating for kids because I want every kid to feel like they can do whatever they set their mind to even when it’s hard.

AUDIO: Chinese song and children singing along

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Rigby, Idaho.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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