Schenectady County

School officials back from China, to expand city language program

A standing ovation was about the last thing Schenectady City School District officials expected duri

A standing ovation was about the last thing Schenectady City School District officials expected during a visit to a Chinese classroom recently.

“When we came in, they all stood and applauded — a little different than we’re used to,” said Ellen Auerbach, program director for the Foreign Language Assistance Program. “I think education is very valued. They know that’s the only way they’re going to get ahead.”

Auerbach and Ron Hamelin, district coordinator of world languages and English as a second language, spent June 23 through July 1 as part of an effort to expand the district’s Chinese language programs. They were among 400 educators from 40 states attending the Chinese Bridge Delegation, which is sponsored and funded by the Chinese government to promote Chinese language and culture. The government covered most of the cost of the trip, which was about $4,500 per person. Each had to pay $900.

The tour started in Beijing. The two city educators visited classes of 9th and 10th graders in two schools. Auerbach said the classes were much larger than in the United States, with 40 to 50 students in a class. However, she said, there seemed to be no discipline problems.

“Students were very anxious to practice their English with us,” she said.

Hamelin said he was impressed that many of the students spoke English very well. The students in China start learning the language as early as second grade.

district offers chinese

The Schenectady City School District began offering Chinese during the 2006-07 school year. Starting this fall, it will offer year-round Chinese instruction in seventh and eighth grade at Mont Pleasant Middle School. It will also offer Chinese in fifth and sixth grades at the four elementary schools that feed into Mont Pleasant — Pleasant Valley, Van Corlaer, Hamilton and Howe.

Hamelin said Chinese is a particularly difficult language to learn because the writing system is not phonetic but based on symbolic characters. He found it strange not being able to decipher the name of the street or the building he was entering while visiting.

“It is like being in another world with a completely different, strange, wonderful writing system,” he said.

Hamelin said the group hit the traditional tourist spots, including the Great Wall of China. Hamelin also climbed the wall at a section where it was not flat, but at an incline. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of stairs,” he said.

Auerbach noticed that Beijing is a smoggy city with bumper-to-bumper traffic. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of automobiles during the last five to 10 years as wealth has increased. She also noticed that there were many people from the United States there either working or as students.

“They’re recruiting lots of Americans who might want to come there and teach English,” she said.

The district started offering Chinese as a 10-week program in the spring of 2007 at Howe International Magnet School. The plan is to expand it to the high school in the fall of 2009. The sixth grade instruction would be three times a week for about 37 minutes per session. The amount of fifth grade instruction is still being determined.

The district is also offering Arabic this fall at Central Park Middle School, King Magnet School and Paige Elementary School.

These new offerings grew out of a federal language assistance program grant that it received from the Department of Homeland Security. Both Chinese and Arabic are listed as “critical” languages for economic and security purposes.

Hamelin said there has been discussion about expanding Chinese instruction to other schools. However, Hamelin said because Chinese is a critical language, there are not a lot of teachers available. “We’re very fortunate to get a second teacher,” he said.

Eventually, the district hopes to take students to China just as it takes French students to France and Spanish students to Spain.

Also this summer, Auerbach said, the district is going to host a two-week summer camp at Union College from Aug. 4 through Aug. 15. About 40 5th- and 6th-graders would be learning Chinese language and culture.

Auerbach said this foreign language experience is valuable.

“The world has become very small and we can no longer say that everyone will learn English,” she said.

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