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West Potomac Pioneered Chinese Classes

Chinese principals visit West Potomac’s cutting-edge language program.

When citing reasons for learning Chinese, most teachers and students refer to the language’s future importance as China’s geo-political influence grows in conjunction with its turbo-fueled economy. But Nicholas Young, a junior at West Potomac High School, is more interested in China’s past, its distant past.

Young said he is participating in his school’s influential Chinese program because his father is Chinese. Asked whether he thought the language would help him in a future career, he replied enthusiastically. Young wants to be a paleontologist, and many of the most important fossils being discovered today are coming from digs in China. “I really wanted to learn more about this language,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”

Young is lucky. West Potomac has had a Chinese class since 1996, making it one of the oldest programs in the country, according to an article in “The Achiever,” a U.S. Department of Education publication. Young’s teacher, Yunian Zhang, has been at the school for most of that time, eight years. He meets face to face with his West Potomac students (as well as other students in the school system who take Chinese at the West Potomac Academy) but he has others whom he may never see.

This year, in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Education, Yunian began a pilot distance-learning class with 28 students from across the state who attend schools that cannot hire a qualified teacher of Chinese. Yunian said he does everything for the class - from website maintenance to curriculum design and grading – himself. The class is a small part of a broader effort to increase the number of Americans who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese and Hindi that are rapidly increasing in global importance. This year, the Department of Education has been issuing language grants totaling $22 million as part of the National Security Language Initiative, created by President Bush as a joint program for the departments of Education, State and Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Through this program, Fairfax County schools received a grant of almost $200,000 to teach Chinese and Arabic, according to “The Achiever.”

Yunian said he has seen interest in Chinese growing, particularly since some elementary and middle schools are now teaching it. “China and U.S. are now so intertwined economically and politically, in order to retain prosperity for the next century [teaching Chinese] is the smart thing to do,” he said. He believes that if the number of American Chinese-speakers rise, so will the odds that the two countries will be “seeking peaceful cooperation rather than conflict.”

THIS COOPERATION WAS EVIDENT on Tuesday, when a delegation of Chinese principals from Dalian in the north-eastern province of Liaoning visited West Potomac. As assistant principal Nancy Kreloff led them through the school, the 14 principals used wafer-thin digital cameras, cell-phones and palm-sized digital camcorders to record nearly everything they passed, including the school’s seal, the library and the cafeteria’s tables with attached stools that folded neatly in half so the floor could be cleaned beneath them.

Most principals relied on a translator, but some spoke English. Han Xuemei said she was the principal of Hui Men Middle School, which has about 1,000 students and 80 teachers. She explained that the delegation, sponsored by the Department of Education, was spending 20 days touring American schools. They were in the D.C. area for one week. Han said she was impressed by the technology she’d seen in U.S. schools. But the aspect of the American system that she would like to bring back to her own school was the freedom she’s seen granted to American students, and their ability to choose from a range of subjects to study. Reversing the question, she said Chinese teachers have more control of their classrooms, and that in China, “students listen to their teacher more carefully.”

In a conference room, the principals asked West Potomac Principal Rima Vesilind, among other things, whether the school had special education classes, how she managed her personnel and how she attracted good teachers. Han asked her how the school handled its multiple teachers for the same subject and “how to prepare lessons for them.”

Vesilind replied that each teacher creates his own lesson plan. “I have to rely on the professionalism of my teachers.” She added that teachers of the same subject meet once a week to collaborate and trade ideas.

The principals also sat in on one of Yunian’s classes. They watched as the American students filled out worksheets of simple sentences in Chinese characters. Han had the opportunity to talk to Young about the other classes he was taking in the school. She nodded her head as he reeled off a long list of required and elective courses. “I hope one day you have the chance to come to China,” she said as she took her leave. “We welcome you in China.”