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Mandarin classes left out of some schools

A dozen elementary and middle schools in Southern Oregon will participate this January in a new Mandarin language program operated by the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

But some of Jackson County's largest districts are mostly absent from the list, including Medford, Central Point and Eagle Point.

"Schools have been saying, 'This is a very hard year for us' (because of budget cuts)," said Jay Matheson, the ESD's technology coordinator and the Mandarin project director. "School weeks have been cut back to four days in some districts (such as Central Point). Schools are saying, 'How can we teach in four days what we used to teach in five days?' "

In Jackson County, Ruch School, Talent Elementary School, Pinehurst School, Ashland's Bellview Elementary School and Ashland Middle School have signed up for the program.

The Medford School District of about 12,000 pupils decided to pass on the program for all but Ruch because of limited time in the school day.

"It's an issue of time," said Rich Miles, elementary education director for the Medford district. "We have state standards we have to teach that are required by the state. Mandarin isn't one of them. We don't have time in the day to teach what's required as it is."

Miles added, "It's really a shame. It sounds like a great grant that brings a lot of technology into the classroom, and a second language is good to have."

Ruch School, a grades K-8 school in the rural community of Ruch in the the Medford district, was an exception to that decision because Mandarin there will be offered only as an elective to middle school students.

Chinese teachers from St. Mary's Confucius Classroom will provide beginning Mandarin instruction via video conference in January to the schools in the ESD's three county jurisdiction: Jackson, Josephine and Klamath.

A $600,000 three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education pays for the equipment at campuses that are not already geared for video conferences as well as Mandarin textbooks.

The only cost to schools is teachers' time and in-kind contributions such as the use of computers.

The program fills a void in the region's public school systems, where second language classes are available only in grades 9-12, Matheson said. The exception is Spanish immersion programs at Talent and Phoenix elementary schools.

Second languages are easier for younger students to acquire and aid in teaching students about their own language, Matheson said.

St. Mary's School, a private Catholic school for grades 6-12, Ashland's Southern Oregon University and Ashland's Siskiyou School, a private Waldorf school for grades 1-8, also offer Mandarin classes.

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

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