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A bridge of language

As the first program of its kind in the United States, St. Mary's School's Confucius Classroom has gained the attention of Chinese media, who toured the Rogue Valley on Tuesday, visiting schools and learning about the curriculum.

Reporters from two of China's largest newspapers — The People's Daily and the Guang Ming Daily — saw how an idea from St. Mary's Principal Frank Phillips has outgrown the school and spread into classrooms across Southern Oregon.

"This far transcends St. Mary's," said Phillips, who explained that in the last three years, Chinese language instruction has been picked up by the Southern Oregon Education Service District, Southern Oregon University and a handful of other schools and is now taught to more than 800 students each week.

"They planted a seed here in 2008 and weren't sure how it would work," said Phillips. "They're very happy that the program has blossomed."

Phillips' idea to bring a Chinese language instructor to St. Mary's came in 2008, after his son attended graduate school at the University of Oregon with the daughter of a Chinese university president.

Phillips asked whether the president of Zheng Zhou University might have a teacher who would want to travel to Oregon and instruct St. Mary's students in Chinese.

Phillips said he was surprised at how responsive students have been to learning the language.

"It's very hard," said Phillips. "But the characters really appeal to artistic students, plus the travel to China helps."

Since the program has started, dozens of St. Mary's students and more than 30 local teachers and administrators have traveled to China as part of St. Mary's outreach efforts.

Phillips has traveled there, along with Ashland and Central Point schools superintendents Juli Di Chiro and Randy Gravon, who both have worked with St. Mary's to implement Chinese language instruction in their districts.

In 2009, the SOESD got on board with Chinese after securing two $600,000 grants to begin Chinese video instruction to classrooms across Southern Oregon.

A grant from the United States Department of Education for materials and curriculum was matched by Hanban, a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education, which provided wages for teachers who would travel from China.

Phillips said the grant from the U.S. is overseen by the Department of Defense.

On Tuesday, the Chinese reporters were joined by two education officials from Hanban, who visited Chinese language classrooms at St. Mary's, Ashland High School, Central Point's Scenic Middle School and video classrooms at SOESD, which serves students in Jackson, Klamath and Josephine counties.

The SOESD teaches other subjects through video conferences, and when Technology and Media Services Coordinator Jay Matheson heard about the Chinese instruction at St. Mary's, he thought the SOESD could get involved.

"When Mandarin (Chinese) came along, we thought it would be natural to connect with video conferences," said Matheson.

Classes are now taught by two Chinese teachers at the ESD to students at 14 different Southern Oregon schools.

Matheson believes the program has seen success because the struggling economy motivates people to think about options.

"We have to think about changing," said Matheson. "This is the language that most people speak in the world."

Wang Fang, a senior reporter for The People's Daily newspaper, said she was sent to Southern Oregon because of the rapid increase in students receiving Chinese language instruction in just the last few years.

Using a St. Mary's Chinese teacher as a translator, the reporter said she was sent here to support good communication between the United States and China, and to observe the success of the program.

Next on the horizon for Phillips is to secure grant funding to create a Confucius Institute, a larger version of a Confucius School, which would encompass all of the Chinese language efforts in Southern Oregon.

Since China's idea of a Confucius Institute was conceived in 2004, more than 900 have popped up in 90 countries worldwide, spreading the Chinese language across the globe.

"It is gigantic," Phillips said, "like everything else in China."

Phillips said part of the reason the education officials traveled with the reporters was to observe the progress in Southern Oregon and give the stamp of approval for the Confucius Institute.

"It's a hand across the water," Phillips said.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

St. Mary’s teacher Zheng Ling, left, Song Yongbo, a Chinese education official, and Jin Xioayan, a reporter with the Guang Ming Daily, visit the Southern Oregon Education Service District on Tuesday to learn more about Chinese language instruction in Southern Oregon. - Jamie Lusch