SAD 6 broadens horizons with Chinese classes

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Cheng Li, a teacher from China, gives a thumbs up to one her students learning Chinese at Buxton Center Elementary School.

Cheng Li, a teacher from China, gives a thumbs up to one her students learning Chinese at Buxton Center Elementary School.

Wang Yu is surrounded by eager students at Buxton Center Elementary School.

Wang Yu

BUXTON — Two teachers from China will leave for home after the school year ends Monday at Maine School Administrative District 6.

Cheng Li and Wang Yu taught kindergarten kids and first-graders in classes held in Buxton Center Elementary School to become conversant in Mandarin Chinese.

“It’ll be hard at end of the year to say goodbye to the kids,” said Wang Yu, who, along with memories, will take home gifts from her students. The gifts proudly displayed on a classroom desktop include a rock and a dandelion.

The teachers’ return to China, however, doesn’t mark the end of the SAD 6 Chinese language program, which began in 2015 with one teacher from China. Come fall, the district will expand its Chinese language and culture program with four teachers from China.

The program at SAD 6 began in kindergarten two years ago and expanded into the first grade this year. In the coming year, the program will offer Chinese in grades 2 and 5 in addition to middle and high schools. “That was the original goal of the program,” Superintendent Paul Penna said.

The district appears to be a leader statewide with its expansion of Chinese learning.

“This program will make our school district unique offering a course of study that will expand student understanding of a different culture that is influential and dominant in the global economy,” Penna said.

Charlotte Regan, assistant principal at Buxton Center Elementary School and mentor for the program’s Chinese teachers, and Penna have both visited China and believe in merits of their local program aimed at education with a global perspective.

Penna said China has the world’s second largest economy and is the largest trading partner with the United States. He said the SAD 6 program will help its graduates compete in a global economy with 200,000 other U.S. students learning Mandarin Chinese.

“Having the ability to understand culture, customs, and language will undoubtedly separate our students from others,” Penna said.

Rachel Paling, communications director at the Maine Department of Education, said in an email that only about 10 percent of Maine’s elementary schools offer world languages.

“Through talking with the world language specialist here at the department and looking at some of our data, I was able to find out that there are not many schools that provide K-12 instruction in the same language,” Paling said.

Gorham High School offers a Mandarin course and plans to expand it by adding a half-time position beginning this fall.

“We are working to strengthen our world language program at the middle school the following year and then expand world languages into the K-5 after that,” Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said recently. “We have not identified any particular language at this time.”

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said his district has no plans for Chinese language instruction at any level. “We taught Mandarin for several years at WHS but discontinued the program in 2012 because of low enrollment,” Lancia said.

Chinese is popular at SAD 6. Youngsters studying Chinese were bused to Buxton Center Elementary School from other district elementary schools in Hollis, Limington and Standish. In a reversal, when classes resume after the summer break, Chinese teachers in SAD 6 will travel among the district’s elementary schools.

Regan said the four teachers from China will be named by a selection committee through the Teachers of Critical Language Program in Washington, D.C., a program of the U.S. Department of State.

“Applications are reviewed and then interviews are held in Beijiung, China, which I was a part of last March,” Regan said.

Regan wasn’t involved with interviewing Cheng Li and Wang Yu, but “they’ve done a wonderful job,” Penna said.

“Teachers want to come over,” Regan said.

SAD 6 parents want them to come over, too.

Several parents of young elementary students lobbied the SAD 6 School Board at its budget hearing in May to continue its Chinese program. David Lister of Hollis said his child is excited to go from Hollis to Buxton to attend the Chinese course. “It would be very disappointing to see the program end,” he said.

Maggie Welch of Steep Falls, mother of a daughter in kindergarten, also spoke in favor of the Chinese program. “My child is inspired,” Welch said. “Her horizon is expanding beyond Standish.”

The Chinese program remained in the budget that went to voters Tuesday in a validation referendum. “We have budgeted $81,060,” Penna said.

The SAD 6 program is subsidized through grants. Penna said the district is working with the College Board and the Teachers of Critical Languages Program.

Children learning Chinese appeared attentive to Cheng Li and Wang Yu. Besides learning math and how to tell time in Chinese, Wang Yu, who spoke at the budget hearing, said her students were able to speak in whole sentences with her.

Fluency of students in Chinese led to an amusing comment. A Buxton parent, Michelle Turgeon, said in the hearing that she has twins. “They talk in Chinese behind my back,” she said.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com