COLLEGE PARK — The Prince George’s County teacher lifted a foam object from an orange bucket in her lap and waited for someone in the kindergarten class to identify its shape. Not in English. Not even in Spanish. Instead, the answer came in another language gaining popularity in American classrooms.
“Yuan xing!” shouted a little girl in a blue-and-white uniform who wears tiny cornrows in her hair. “Yuan xing!” the others, sitting on the floor in front of the teacher, echoed in unison.
Katherine Chang nodded in agreement and repeated the Chinese words for “circle.” Next was a picture of a house. Two hands shot up in the air. The answer: “Fang zi.”
The lesson last week in Room 13 at Paint Branch Elementary School was part of a new effort to teach students Chinese language and culture throughout the day. The College Park school is believed to be the fourth public school in the Washington area to provide a Chinese immersion program. Many others, especially at the secondary level, have begun to offer Chinese courses in recognition of the economic and cultural importance of the world’s most populous nation.
“I believe families are realizing that in order for their children to be competitive in the global workforce they will need to know Chinese, so (speaking Chinese) is seen as being a critical skill,” said H. Yalan King, executive director of the Mandarin Institute, an organization in San Francisco that promotes Chinese language and culture education.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recently found there were 59,860 Chinese language students in public schools in the 2007-08 school year, up from 20,292 in 2004-05.
The Chinese immersion program at Paint Branch, begun this school year, builds on a 4-year-old partnership with the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland. Under that initiative, professors visit the school periodically to teach Chinese culture. Fifteen sixth grade students from the school each year have taken trips to China. In January, students from a “sister school” in Tianjin, China, visited Paint Branch.
The immersion at Paint Branch has begun with kindergartners. They are taught Mandarin Chinese words and phrases alongside English for lessons in math, science and other subjects. The program will expand from year to year, adding grades, as the students progress through sixth grade.
Viola Harris, the assistant principal, said Paint Branch focused on Chinese because of the country’s economic influence and the school’s desire to offer an innovative program.
“We wanted to prepare the students for globalization in the 21st century,” Harris said.
Harris said the Chinese immersion won’t hinder teaching the core curriculum. Instead, she predicted, it will do the opposite. Since the school launched its Chinese initiatives four years ago, students have continued to meet state testing standards. In 2011, more than 80 percent of students were proficient in reading and math.
In the 411-student school, People’s Republic of China flags are nearly as visible as American ones. Chinese characters for “boys” and “girls” are prominently displayed above restroom doors. Inside the language lab — which recently received a $25,000 state grant — Chinese picture books, sculptures and posters adorn the room.
During a recent lesson, seven kindergarten students wore earphones that nearly touched the base of their chins. They spoke into microphones, repeating words that flashed across a flat-screen monitor. Chang, also wearing earphones, listened in, ready to correct the slightest mispronunciation.
“They are very eager and excited to learn,” said Chang, the school’s first Chinese teacher. “They are very verbal … and they are able to recall. Their parents told me that they are very impressed that their children love to learn Chinese so much.”
Students from second through fifth grade learn about Chinese culture. Sixth-graders also take classes in the language laboratory.
Week after week, Chang has built the kindergartners’ vocabulary. She has taught them words and sentences such as “circle,” ”kick” and “She wears a necklace.” She works in the lab and in the classroom with the children’s regular kindergarten teacher.
Educators say such efforts are unfolding in schools across the country, sometimes through online lessons.
Marty Abbott, a spokeswoman for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said Chinese still trails Spanish, French, German, Latin and Japanese in public school enrollment. Seventy-two percent of students enrolled in foreign language classes in 2007-08 studied Spanish, Abbott said. About 4 percent of them studied Latin. Less than 1 percent studied Chinese, according to the council.
“It’s growing, but it’s going to take a lot of growth to go beyond the others that have been taught historically in this country,” Abbott said. “We now see China as a economic competitor and that’s where we have put the emphasis in learning language. It’s similar to what happened in the 1980s when Japanese was growing so strong.”
Arlington County began teaching middle and high school students Chinese during the school day in 2010. The Fairfax County school system offers Spanish in 17 elementary schools, French in one and Chinese in nine.
Ten public schools in the District offer Chinese, including three elementary schools and one charter school with an immersion program. D.C. officials said enrollment in the elementary school language programs has increased 7 percent in the past five years.
Montgomery County started its first Chinese immersion program in 1996 at Potomac Elementary School. Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said demand for that program led to the creation of another in 2005 at College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville.
Last year, Tofig said, about 325 students competed for 52 slots at the two schools.
At Paint Branch, Harris said, enrollment has risen as parents have learned about the school’s Chinese focus.
“They see … the success of the program,” Harris said. “And the parents are excited to have their children exposed to different cultures.”