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Bringing Lessons of the Far East into Midwest Classrooms

Lessenger Elementary's Chinese Immersion Class













Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Bill Skilling sees a future dominated by China's economic and political interests. With that in mind, he has become a strong advocate for teaching our kids both Chinese culture and language.
America's days as the world's leading economic power are numbered, and Oxford Community Schools superintendent Bill Skilling says it's time our children were made ready for that.

"Just like the 1800s were owned by England and the 1900s were owned by Americans, this next era is going to be owned by China," Skilling says. "China's economy is going to become, by 2040, larger than the rest of the world's combined, and that's not that far from now. That's 27 years. As a country we need our kids to be able to work and learn successfully with Chinese people."

Skilling has implemented his ideas in Oxford schools in major ways over the past five years. The district now has a mandatory foreign-language program for kindergarten through 10th grade, with 2,000 students (and counting) currently enrolled in Mandarin Chinese instruction. Skilling and his colleagues have also established curriculum and student exchange programs with multiple Chinese schools, as well as an international residence academy for Chinese high schoolers.

While Oxford represents a more dramatic example, it's just one piece of an overall push for increased Chinese programming across Oakland County schools. Oakland Schools superintendent Vickie Markavitch says the initiative was inspired by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who called for Oakland schools to teach Mandarin Chinese county-wide in his 2007 State of the County address.

"I went to my curriculum people and I said, number one, is this a good thing for our students in this county?" Markavitch says. "And it actually turned out that most people thought it was a very good thing."

Although some Oakland schools had been teaching Mandarin Chinese for many years previous to Patterson's challenge (Birmingham first introduced the language in its schools almost 25 years ago), the county has since seen an explosion of Chinese programming. The first step was offering a middle-school curriculum unit on Chinese culture in all 28 Oakland school districts. Many teachers were hired directly from China, and nearly 20 districts now offer Chinese language classes at some, if not all, grade levels. At Oxford, Skilling says the feedback from parents and the community wasn't exactly glowing at first.

"It's extremely positive today, but I emphasize 'today,'" he explains. "At that time it wasn't a very popular thing to do, especially saying that we're going to focus on Mandarin Chinese when a lot of people have lost their jobs and are blaming China."

In the Lamphere district, a non-mandatory but similarly ambitious program won quick support from parents and has a list of students waiting for an open spot. In addition to Chinese language instruction for most grades, Lamphere preschools now offer a Chinese immersion program. Enrolled youngsters spend half their school day in a Chinese-language classroom, and the other half in a traditional English-language classroom. Parents can enroll their preschoolers for either three or five immersion days per week.

"Learning it at a young age makes learning a third language and a fourth language just that much easier for them," says Lamphere superintendent Marsha Pando. "When we have visitors here from China, they all say the same thing: 'Wow, they don't have an accent.' And it's because they've learned so young."

Jane Jurvis is principal at Lessenger Elementary, one of the Lamphere schools that offers the preschool immersion program. She says getting parents into the classroom has been key in developing understanding and appreciation of the program.

"One of the things that we are constantly trying to do is make it so the parents can see the magnificence of their kids learning this language," Jurvis says. "When [the kids] go home, their parents don't speak Chinese, so they don't necessarily see it. But when you go to the class and everyone is reading and speaking and writing Chinese, it's incredible."

Pando says the district offers a special class for parents to help them get "a flavor" for what their kids are learning. She recalls parents who recently sent her a video of their child and some friends conducting a conversation in Chinese amongst their American Girl dolls.

"It was like a Chinese tea party," Pando says.

In many districts these positive developments have flown in the face of considerable financial shortcomings across the Michigan school system. Markavitch says it was easier to raise funds from local businesses early on, but the last five years have proven a difficult time to introduce a major new language and culture program.

"The economy became a challenge," Markavitch says. "Businesses were no longer able to provide support to the program, and the schools themselves over the last five years have lost funding and have been in the mode of reducing programs and struggling to sustain growth. So we haven't seen the growth we thought we would."

However, financial troubles have affected some districts less than others. At Oxford, Skilling says administrators eliminated some "sacred institutions," like home economics class for middle and high school, and diverted the funds into world language programming.

"In that sense, we created a world language program and didn't spend any new money to do it," he says. "When you have a visionary mentality and a laser-like focus on that mentality, you don't have to worry about your revenue streams."

Skilling's certainly not lacking for visionary mentality, setting the flagship example for the county's emphasis on preparing youngsters for a rapidly changing economic reality.

"We feel that it's an essential global skill," he says. "America is so far behind in mandating a world language required for every student. I believe that if we graduate students today that are not fluent in at least one world language, we're structuring them up to be fundamentally unemployable. It's essential to their future."

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