More than 80 percent of El Paso's 700,000 residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino. The Texas city has a preponderance of schoolchildren with a command of both Spanish and English.
"Because of our proximity to Mexico, we have a unique opportunity to have more students leave our school system not just bi-lingual, but tri-lingual," says Xavier De La Torre, superintendent of El Paso's Socorro Independent School District. SISD, a finalist in 2009 and 2010 for the Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education, has just started piloting a new first-year course in Mandarin Chinese for high school students interested in advanced studies. "We must prepare students to compete in this global economy against students from Asia, Europe and India—areas with very strong, rigorous, academically oriented programs," De La Torre says. "English and Chinese are the primary languages used to conduct business— with Mandarin Chinese being the largest Asian-based language."
At Socorro's new Eastlake High School, 56 ninth-graders have begun learning Mandarin Chinese using an online tool called myChinese360. This K12 tutorial venture by the Texas-based company TC G Global is "light years ahead" of other computerbased language programs, according to De La Torre. Some of the coursework can be done independently, and some in language labs monitored by on-site instructors not skilled in Chinese. The big attraction for students is that they connect with a teacher in China. Students also enjoy creating computer-generated avatars that can take virtual fieldtrips to the Great Wall of China or engage in everyday Chinese activities.
SISD initially searched in El Paso for certified Mandarin teachers, but found few local candidates. De La Torre was pleased to learn that TC G Global had been working with the Chinese government and the University of Beijing to recruit and hire some of the best language teachers in China.
"The company helps the teachers become certified and credentialed in all of the states currently introducing myChinese360, so students here can receive credit for taking the courses," he explains. The SISD Board of Trustees, meanwhile, supported a contract for myChinese360 at a rate of $600 per student, per semester. If this year's pilot proves successful, the language program has upper-level course offerings ready and waiting for SISD approval.
Living the Language
A few months into the Mandarin experiment at Eastlake High, Principal Angelica Ramsey couldn't be more enthusiastic. "It is the neatest thing ever to be in that classroom and hear them speak Chinese. The students love it," she says. "They're self-directed, because it's very interactive." Classes have a maximum of 15 students, each equipped with a computer and headset, working twice weekly with one teacher in China who conducts live chats about onscreen lessons and who e-mails grades to supervising SISD teachers. And students must schedule one-on-one computer time with their Chinese teachers.
The appeal of myChinese360 cuts across social and economic lines, says Ramsey, who notes that low-income, high-income and special-needs students are thriving in the program. "We have an autistic student who is taking Chinese, and he is doing just fine. It's a great venue, because he's able to see it, hear it, speak it, he gets corrected if needed, and then he has independent practice."
"We all need to share best practices," De La Torre says, including using technology "to deliver instruction in ways that are inviting and engaging to students."
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Northern California.