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Philadelphia-area students learn Chinese through Confucius Classrooms program
Back in the late 1990s, forward-thinking educators at the Hill School in Pottstown added Chinese to the language offerings.
Recently, the private high school's model program became one of 60 nationwide designated "Confucius Classrooms" by the Asia Society and by the People''s Republic of China''s Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban.
Confucius Classrooms are designed to promote cultural exchanges and help meet the growing demand for people fluent in the world''s most-spoken language.
Using funds from the Chinese government, the program provides opportunities for students and educators to travel to China, conferences for teachers, and chances for students to interact with Chinese peers at sister schools.
"I wanted to apply for this because I want resources for my kids," said Hsiao-Ning Tu, a Chinese teacher at the Hill School who received a $10,000 grant. "I also wanted the prestige. The kids will know that ''I''m in a program that is recognized, so I should work hard.'' "
Central High and Girls'' High, public schools in Philadelphia, are the other Pennsylvania schools in the program. New Jersey''s five include Princeton High School and the private Peddie School in Hightstown. The network schools hold conferences and act as mentors to other schools.
The Chinese government support has stirred some controversy. Critics in Hacienda Heights, Calif., are trying to recall school board members who approved a similar program.
Christopher Livaccari, an associate director at the Asia Society in New York who oversees Chinese-language initiatives, said the Chinese government did not dictate curriculum, textbooks, or teaching methods. The nonprofit society has been working to improve ties between the United States and Asian nations since 1956.
Area educators said no one had challenged the Confucius Classrooms concept here.
"I don''t think there are any strings attached," Tu said. "I think the Chinese government knows. They want to push the language, push the culture. They know America is a different system, a different way of thinking. I don''t think they would be so dumb to interfere."
She used part of the grant to buy a whiteboard she installed in the hallway outside her classroom so students could work crossword puzzles in Chinese.
Xueling Qu, head of the world-languages department at Girls'' High, said School District lawyers had reviewed the school''s agreement and had found nothing objectionable.
"They don''t tell you what to do," said Qu, who traveled to China last summer with her principal and an art teacher to learn more about Chinese culture.
As is usual for Confucius Classrooms, the educators paid their own airfare, but the program covered their 10-day stay in China.
Qu, who began the Chinese program at Girls'' High in 2000, said 90 students were enrolled this year.
The Hill School, which has 503 day and boarding students, considered adding Japanese in 1997 but opted for Chinese instead.
"They were ahead of the learning curve," said Chris DeLucia, who had 13 students when he began teaching Chinese two years later. "Japanese was very popular then."
Now the Hill School - where tuition is $31,500 for day students and $45,000 for boarders - offers Chinese classes ranging from beginners to advanced, with honors and Advanced Placement sections. DeLucia and Tu, who arrived in 2008, teach 52 students.
Students give different reasons for taking Chinese.
"I have a lot of Chinese friends and they speak Chinese, so I want to talk to them and learn more about their culture," said YoonJee Lee, a junior from South Korea.
Antwaine De Cambre, a sophomore from New York City, studies several languages and enjoys the challenges posed by Chinese.
"The biggest mistake people make when they learn other languages is they try to refer back to their own language and translate," he said. "You can''t do that with Chinese."
A native of Taiwan, Tu acknowledged that learning a language such as Chinese, which is based on pictorial symbols, or logograms, presented special challenges.
"First of all, Chinese looks difficult," she said. There''s also a lot to memorize at first.
"I keep telling my kids it may feel very hard at first, but when you hit a point, things start to get easier," she said. "Learning Chinese takes time. It takes patience."
She expects her students to address her in Chinese whenever they see her.
"You cannot learn a language just inside the four walls of the classroom," she tells them.
One recent afternoon, seven students in Tu''s Chinese 2 class discussed clothing in Chinese. There were a few awkward moments and some humorous ones as they struggled to come up with the word for khaki and the best way to say two pairs of shoes were the same size.
At the end of class, sophomore Marcus Sass, who commutes from Audubon, Montgomery County, said he was preparing for the global economy. "I think many jobs will open up if you take Chinese," he said. He plans to continue in the Hill School''s program.
"My goal is to become fluent in Chinese," Sass said. "I don''t know if that will ever happen, but that''s my goal."
 
(Source from philly.com)