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Grant funds will boost Mandarin classes in schools

The Southern Oregon Education Service District has become the latest local institution to offer Mandarin, establishing more links in educators' vision of a seamless Chinese language program from the third grade through college.

The district earlier this week was awarded a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide a Mandarin program for third through eighth grades over a three-year period. Service district officials hope to continue the program after the grant has expired.

"Soon China will be the largest English-speaking country in the world, and look at how many people speak Chinese here," said Jay Matheson, the district's technology coordinator and the Mandarin project director. "We need to build that curiosity about China. If we are dealing with them on a world level, we need people who are curious about their culture and language. We need to get our heads out of the sand."

The classes are expected to roll out in January in third and sixth grades in the district's three-county jurisdiction, including Jackson, Josephine and Klamath. Fourth and seventh grades would be added in 2011. Fifth and eighth grades would join in 2012.

"We need to open kids' brains to language instruction while the pathways are still wide open," Matheson said. "You see how quickly kids grab onto technology at a young age. Language is similar to that."

Instruction will be offered through two-way video conferencing, with much of the grant money going toward installing the necessary equipment at local schools.

Schools will be chosen to participate through an application process. Recruitment of schools begins this month.

The only cost to the school would be in-kind contributions such as the use of computers and teachers' time. Mandarin lessons would be delivered a minimum of three hours per week.

Dedicating time to a Chinese program at the elementary level could be a hard sale at some elementary schools because of the national focus on bringing students' skills up to grade level in basic subjects, such as reading and math, and dwindling state financial support.

But to reject the Mandarin program on that basis is short-sighted, Matheson said.

"Studying another language really enhances the study of your own language," Matheson said, "and it's a great motivator for students."

The program will fill a void in the region's public school systems, where second language classes are available only in ninth through 12th grades, Matheson said. The exception is Spanish immersion programs at Talent and Phoenix elementary schools.

The district's vision is to eventually expand the Mandarin program so that students could attend classes without interruption from the third to 12th grades and then go on to Southern Oregon University in Ashland or another university and continue studying the language, Matheson said.

SOU recently announced it will launch a beginning Mandarin program Sept. 28 when classes resume.

Medford's St. Mary's School, which began the county's first Mandarin program in fall 2006, will lend one of its three Chinese instructors to both SOU and the service district.

Last year, the private Catholic secondary school became the first high school in the Americas to become a Confucius Classroom through the Hanban Chinese Language Council International's Confucius Institute program in China. The program provides instructors from China to teach Mandarin at the school and makes Chinese educational and travel activities available to students, often for free.

"Part of the mission of the Confucius Classroom is to spread Chinese culture and language studies," said Frank Phillips, St. Mary's head of school. "Part of (the decision to share the school's Chinese teachers) is a good neighbor policy. Funding is down for public education, and Chinese is an important language."

By the end of the three years, the service district hopes to have recruited 25 schools to offer the Mandarin classes and to have enrolled 1,875 pupils.

Some school districts have already expressed interest in the program, including the Klamath County School District.

Klamath County schools already have significant video conferencing capability through a previous service district grant designed to deliver more distance learning courses to rural schools.

"For me, in today's world, why are we not learning more languages from China and Japan?" said Doug Smith, Klamath County schools curriculum director. "If students get interested in it at the elementary level and wanted to continue it at the secondary level, there are pretty good job opportunities out there for them."

David Cosand, a fifth-grade teacher at Medford's Kennedy Elementary School, said the program is valuable to local students who are isolated from many of the world's cultures compared to children in metropolises.

"There is not an immediate application for Mandarin in the Rogue Valley, but the contact students would have with other cultures shows them that we are all connected with the world around us," Cosand said. "I think what the program does is give students a global perspective and the ability to be able to relate to people on a whole other level of sophistication."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.