Robert Dorsey is not Chinese, but he drives 25 miles from El Cajon to Point Loma every morning so his two daughters can learn to speak, read, and write in Mandarin.
“In my culture, it’s English, Ebonics, and maybe a little bit of Spanish,” says Dorsey, who is African American. “About ten years ago, my wife was in college, and her professor told her Chinese was the language to learn. I want to give my kids a little bit of an edge in life.”
His daughters, in first and third grade, attend Barnard Elementary, a Mandarin Chinese full-immersion magnet school. In kindergarten, students spend 80 percent of their day (about four hours) reading, writing, and listening to Mandarin. The other 20 percent, they spend on English Language Arts. In first grade, it’s 70 and 30 percent, and second grade, 50-50. Third through sixth graders attend a 45-minute pull-out Mandarin class each day, but as the program, now in its fourth year, grows, those grades will conduct half of their lessons in Mandarin.
The Dorseys are among a growing population of non-Chinese families interested in the language. According to Barnard’s principal, Edward Park, the school’s Chinese population is under 2 percent. He estimates the African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian populations at 20, 33, and 38 percent, respectively. And like the Dorseys, 60 percent of the student body is from outside the Point Loma area.
On a Thursday afternoon in early November, I peek in on a kindergarten class at Barnard. The room’s walls are covered in brightly colored pictures and simple words, but many of the words are Chinese characters. Even the behavior chart is written in Chinese.
The many-hued children are busy in small groups at computers, bookshelves, and tables, where they color with markers and crayons. Near the door, the teacher calls students over two at a time to assess their math and literacy skills on an iPad. They use their fingers to draw the Chinese character for the number two. The iPad reads it back to them in Chinese.
According Dr. Lilly Cheng, managing director of the Confucius Institute at San Diego State University, Barnard is one of 16 San Diego–area schools that house Confucius Classrooms. The institute was established by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban, a nonprofit based in Beijing and affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The purpose of Hanban, its website says, is to provide “Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide.” Confucius Institutes support Confucius Classrooms by providing teachers, training them, and helping schools to develop programs.
Cheng said she was not authorized to comment on the amount of money Hanban contributed to set up the Confucius Institute, but when asked how much Hanban contributed to set up local Confucius Classrooms, she said, “If you’re talking U.S. dollars, the maximum amount is $10,000 per school.”
And though she emphasized that Hanban does not make additional financial contributions, she listed teaching materials and equipment, software, teacher-training workshops, and sponsorship of sister-school exchanges and other travel opportunities for students and teachers as among the other types of contributions Hanban makes.
While not all 16 local schools provide full-immersion Chinese classes, their numbers suggest a growing interest in Chinese education. In 2009, only 7 Confucius Classrooms existed in the area. Cheng informs me that today there are “27 classrooms and counting.”
To be designated a Confucius Classroom, a program “has to be in a public school that’s open from 7:00 to 3:00, Monday through Friday,” she says. So, even the number of Confucius Classrooms doesn’t give a complete picture of the rise of Chinese education in San Diego.
There are a handful of weekend schools. The oldest, the Chinese School of San Diego, in Kearny Mesa, offers 21 Saturday classes, 8:30 to noon, for students aged 4 and up. Currently, “and up” includes students who are “60-something years old,” says Sally Wong-Avery, who has been the school’s principal since 1984. Back then, the student population was approximately 60, of which 100 percent were of Chinese ethnicity. Today, only 30 percent of the school’s 200 students are Chinese. According to Wong-Avery, the non-Chinese population has grown most quickly in the past three or four years.
“We have Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Spanish, blacks, Czech, Russians, Colombians,” she says. “Altogether, we have 20 different nationalities.”
Back in his office at Barnard, Park says that Chinese is one of the “top-five critical languages” in the world.
“In addition to 1.3 billion people [in China], we’ve got another 800 million people around the globe learning Mandarin right now,” he says. “There are close to 300 million people learning the English language in China, which is almost the population of the United States. And we have approximately 60,000 students learning Mandarin language. They’re trying to be competitive with us, but yet where are we in terms of the global community?”
Jim Boydston, president of Barnard’s PTA, believes that U.S. students should study Chinese to be competitive in the global marketplace, but that’s not the reason he sends his daughter to Barnard.
“We wanted our daughter to learn a non-Romance language primarily for brain development, and Chinese is about as diametrically opposed to English as any language can be,” he says. “It’s like a different concept, and from what we’ve read, we felt that more synapses would be formed.”
The decision, Boydston says, is not one that everybody understands.
“Do people feel like we’re raising little Communists? Yes,” he says. “The stock answer to that is, the Chinese culture has been around for about 5000 years, and Chinese Communism’s been around for what, 65 years? The model here is what they refer to as the Confucius model, and Confucius has been around a lot longer and doesn’t have very much to do with Communism.”
In 2007, before the Confucius Classrooms began at Barnard, 36 percent of its students tested proficient or advanced in English Language Arts and 57.6 percent tested proficient or advanced in math. By 2010, those numbers had risen to 65.3 and 70 percent, respectively. In March 2011, Barnard was one of 209 schools in the state to receive the Title 1 Academic Achievement Award from the California Department of Education.