Horry school officials return from China looking to catch up in foreign languages

Horry County Schools officials who recently traveled to China to learn more about the educational system there returned with an appreciation of English language training in that country’s schools, and with inspiration from Chinese language programs they learned already are operating close to home.

Superintendent Cindy Elsberry, school board members Harvey Eisner and Karen McIlrath, and Melissa Schamel, district coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages, returned Nov. 15 from a weeklong tour of China, hosted by the Hanban Institute. The trip cost $900 per person, including food, hotels, travel, except the airfare to the departure point in New York. The cost per person amounted to less than $1,300 each.

The Horry County officials were part of the 2012 Chinese Bridge Delegation, a group of K-12 and higher education leaders from around the United States who observed classrooms in various provinces and learned more about starting or strengthening their own Chinese programs.

Elsberry said Chinese children are immersed in English from kindergarten through 12th grade, and her classroom observations gave her a real understanding of how advanced they are in our language. But she said it was talks with other educators – nine on the trip were from South Carolina – about their Chinese language programs that really got her attention.

She said Beaufort County and Lexington District 1 already have Mandarin Chinese immersion programs at the elementary level, and schools in Chapel Hill, N.C., are well ahead of the curve, now graduating students who have been taking Mandarin for 13 years.

“So Horry County is a little behind in the foreign language department, and we have some work to do to catch up,” according to Elsberry, who said Chinese is important because it is now spoken by 1/5 of the world’s population. “It’s really heightened my desire to offer a wider menu of language to our students.”

Immersion is a method of teaching bilingualism by conducting the majority of classroom subjects in the student’s second language. While districts can hire language teachers and set up their own programs, Elsberry said many groups, such as Hanban and the Asia Society, also are available to partner on such programs.

HCS students currently can study Spanish, French and German in high school, and those languages, as well as Japanese, Mandarin and Latin, also are offered at various levels, including honors and advanced placement, through the state’s virtual offerings or those that the district is able to purchase from other virtual schools.

There is no foreign language requirement for earning a S.C. high school diploma, although two units of the same language are required for admission to some colleges. Schamel said the majority of the district’s students opt for Spanish I and II.

McIlrath said she came back from the trip with a very different impression of China than what she had before, realizing how much the Chinese people are interested in the rest of the world and how much they are interested in U.S. culture. She said while she doesn’t know what an immersion program might look like in Horry County, it is important to anticipate who the world players will be to determine appropriate offerings and to survey parents about immersion programs and Mandarin Chinese specifically.

Elsberry, McIlrath and board member Janet Graham will be attending a S.C. School Boards Association meeting in Hilton Head this weekend and are going a day early to take a look at Beaufort’s Chinese immersion program, McIlrath said.

“[An immersion program] would make our kids so much more marketable,” McIlrath said. “It creates opportunities for kids that they don’t have.”

Eisner said he was surprised to find out there already were programs in South Carolina, as well as around the Southeast. He said it is important for students to learn to speak the languages of emerging countries fluently, as well as their customs, which is necessary for doing business.

“I would support very strongly to have Chinese particularly at the primary level,” Eisner said. “It is very, very important that we help these students understand that they live in a world that’s a lot smaller than we thought it was years ago.”

Any new program brings up the issue of cost, which has become more important in an era of major belt-tightening.

“The first red flag is finances, but I think it is completely possible to find the money that’s needed to begin the program,” McIlrath said. “We may just have to look for outside sources to tap, like with robotics.”

Eisner said if the board is in favor of looking into an immersion program, then more research would be needed, but he thinks the cost could be minimal. He said hiring someone who can teach Chinese wouldn’t necessarily add a position because they would be teaching all the subject matter in addition to a new language.

“If the cost is minimal, and if we could get 25 students saying we really want that program – I can’t see the downside,” Eisner said.