High school students try to save Mandarin language classes
HYANNIS, Mass. (AP) — A Mandarin paper written by Barnstable High School junior Maddie Sawyer looks impossibly complex, filled with Chinese characters that are a world away from the “big three” languages typically taught in high school — French, Spanish and Latin.
But Sawyer and other students in teacher Bo Wu’s fourth-year Mandarin class said the language is both accessible and a pleasure to learn.
“The way we learn is just so fun,” said senior Matthew Fredo, 18.
Wu uses games and colorful Post-it notes to help students memorize characters and rules of Chinese grammar.
“She’ll work with you one-on-one,” Fredo said.
With the future of Barnstable High’s Mandarin program in jeopardy due to low enrollment, the students plan to do some active recruitment to boost numbers. They said they’ll reach out and speak to sixth and seventh graders about signing up for the Chinese language program as early as eighth grade.
“We just want to let them know it’s not that hard of a class,” said Sawyer, 17.
“It’s just different,” said junior Ally Tindall, 16.
The fate of the Mandarin program seemed to be nearly sealed this winter after Barnstable school officials announced plans to phase it out, starting by eliminating Mandarin 1 this coming fall.
But an outpouring of support from current and previous Mandarin students at a Feb. 5 Barnstable School Committee meeting has won the program at least a temporary reprieve.
“We’ll keep it open to see how many students elect it as a foreign language for 2020,” Barnstable School Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown said.
By the end of the month school officials should have a good sense of how many students have signed up for first-year and higher level Mandarin classes this coming fall, Mayo-Brown said.
During the school committee meeting, students and parents spoke about how Mandarin was a program that helped Barnstable High School stand out, Mayo-Brown said.
Mashpee, Sandwich, Nauset Regional High School and Monomoy Regional High School also offer Mandarin classes.
Mandarin has been part of the curriculum at Monomoy Regional High School since the high school opened in its new location in Harwich in 2014, Principal William Burkhead said.
“I don’t think there’s any fear of losing it,” Burkhead said.
Enrollment has been consistent at 40 to 50 students a year, he said.
“It’s been pretty solid for us,” Burkhead said, adding that there are plans in the works for the school to offer Advanced Placement in Mandarin.
Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School recently considered hiring a Mandarin teacher, but after some research determined the program would not make fiscal sense.
“I think we’re like most of the Cape schools,” said Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District Assistant Superintendent Kenneth Jenks.
“We would love to have brought Mandarin in,” Jenks said. “The challenge is it’s probably a three- or four-year period of building a program” that would probably top off at 70 to 80 students, he said.
Some schools still hover around the 50-student mark in Mandarin, Jenks said.
“Does this serve enough students to justify the cost?” he asked. In addition to French, Spanish and Latin, the Dennis-Yarmouth school district also offers a German program, which Jenks said “is vibrant, especially at the high school level.”
Currently 45 students take Mandarin at Barnstable High School, Mayo-Brown said.
Mandarin 1 and 2 classes have 15 students each while Mandarin 3 has eight students and Mandarin 4 has seven students, Mayo-Brown said.
“It’s a great class,” May-Brown said. “The kids love it. The teacher’s fantastic.”
But with Barnstable school officials hiring an additional counselor and additional French and Spanish teachers this fall, “I have to look at the big picture” and consider finances, Mayo-Brown said.
“It’s not about content or teaching,” Mayo-Brown said. “I would just like to see (enrollment) increase.”
Wu and her students said there are benefits to small classes.
By the fourth year the students know each other so well they are comfortable projecting their work on the board and subjecting it to critiques by classmates, which expedites learning, Wu said.
Upper level students enjoy their Mandarin classes so much they’ve joined a Chinese Honor Society that meets once a month to cook dumplings and play ping pong, among other things.
“You want to learn Chinese, and you want to learn about the culture,” said Fredo, whose twin brother also takes Mandarin and whose younger sister plans to take it as an eighth grader next year.
“We’re looking pretty optimistically at our enrollment for next year,” Wu said.
But she said it is a struggle to promote Mandarin outside of the Boston area, which has more so-called heritage students.
“We’re not living in a community where a lot of Asians live,” Wu said.
But the fact that a Barnstable High School student is committed to learning Mandarin intrigues colleges and universities, said senior Bryson Bergal, 18, a fourth-year Mandarin student who traveled to Xian, China, with the program in 2017.
“It helped with the college process so much,” Bergal said.
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com