Bibb County, Ga. is better known for being at the heart of confederacy than for its international interests—until now. This fall marked the beginning of a new curriculum for the school district, with Mandarin Chinese classes now required for all pre-K12 students. Haitian-born superintendent Romain Dallemand’s goal is to have all students become fully bilingual in English and Mandarin by high school graduation.
It is a bold initiative for a struggling school district, where most students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and only about half graduate. While some parents have spoken out against the program, for fear of Communist influence from the teachers or the belief that English programs should be strengthened first, Dallemand, who arrived on the job last year, insists that all deserve a strong education that includes Mandarin for the betterment of their future in a global job market.
Mandarin has already replaced Spanish as the second most popular language for Americans, as China becomes a major global economic power, as well as the United States’ largest trading partner. The number of U.S. K12 public school students studying Mandarin Chinese tripled from 20,000 in 2004 to 60,000 in 2008 and continues to rise, according to Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
“We’re seeing a trend toward the increase in learning Mandarin at all levels, from elementary through higher education,” Abbott says. “It’s important that, as a country, we start to focus on the skills that our students are going to need to live and work in a global society.”
Bibb County’s Mandarin requirement is part of “The Macon Miracle,” Dallemand’s plan for success and college readiness that also involves longer school days and year-round instruction, named after the town of Macon, Ga.
The 25 Mandarin teachers, all hailing from China, are provided by a nearby Confucius Institute, a nonprofit cultural center aligned with the Chinese government as part of Beijing’s initiative to promote Mandarin abroad. They now live in the Bibb County communities, and work full-time in the school district at a cost of $16,000 per teacher per year.
This school year, students in pre-K through grade 3 began Mandarin lessons with a few sessions per week. Within three years, the middle and high school students will embark on the journey to become bilingual, as well.
For more information about the Confucius Institute, visit english.chinese.cn.