Where do most Black Students learn Chinese?

Medgar Evers College Preparatory School is a public school in central Brooklyn, New York. Most of its students come from low-income families: about 90% are eligible for free or reduced lunches. The student population is mostly African American and Afro-Caribbean. And here’s one other thing to know about Medgar Evers. It runs one of the largest Chinese language programs for students not from a Chinese background in the United States. About 400 pupils take Chinese, from grade 6 through to 11.

To say the students are motivated is an understatement. “From the sixth grade, I always said I wanted to be a neurosurgeon,” said senior Sadiki Wiltshire, the principal’s son. “As the years progressed, I still wanted to, but I realized it would be better if I extended my network to not just America but all over the world.

“Because of my love for Chinese, I realized that I love languages, period. When I go to college I want to study Russian, Korean and Japanese. When you break the language barrier, there’s nothing you can’t do,” he said. “You can do anything.”

Young Wiltshire, now an AP scholar with distinction, was one of the first Medgar Evers students required to take Chinese in the sixth grade. Six years later, he already has college credits and is looking at attending Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Penn, Yale and Princeton.

Spanish and French are the other options once the students reach the ninth grade, but students can continue with Chinese if they wish.

More than language

Medgar Evers is one of 100 schools nationally that the Asia Society supports with its Confucius Classroom program. “We look at programs which are focusing on a much larger agenda and are using language instruction as a lever to be globally competent,” said Chris Livaccari, the society’s director of education and Chinese language initiatives.

In seventh and eighth grade, the curriculum is more project-based on subjects such as the weather and what kinds of clothes should be worn on different days. There is also an art class once a week in seventh grade.

Role-playing and technology are incorporated into the smaller ninth- and 10th-grade Advanced Placement classes. “We want to teach them five skills – reading, writing, speaking, listening and typing,” said Yuhang Michael Jiang, who formerly worked at IBM. Jiang also began a Chinese chess club, which Sadiki Wiltshire described as “very, very interesting” and “much more warlike” than American chess.

Involving mom and dad

“My parents are very happy I’m learning Chinese,” said Angelique Torres, 11, who also is conversant in Spanish. “The hardest things in Chinese are the tones and characters and the pronunciation of the characters.”

“They are bowled over with the Chinese, just blown away,” said Adilifu, the assistant principal, who has been at the school for eight years. “The parents support us 100 percent on back-to-school night and we have an ‘Attend School With Your Child’ day.”

Wu, the sixth grade Chinese teacher, said the students “read to the parents even if they don’t understand, so they involve the parents and extend the learning when they’re home. A lot of them want to go to China to study.”

Baozhong Ye’s students use 200 to 250 characters in each of their projects, and Yuhang Michael Jiang makes technology part of his classes.

How program works

The Confucius Classroom program, which is almost 2 years old, reaches nearly 25,000 students in 27 states and the District of Columbia. It is only in schools that already have Asian language studies.

Resources such as DVDs, professional development, free interaction, a newsletter with 7,000 subscribers, and a National Chinese Language Conference provide growth opportunities, according to Livaccari, the Asia Society’s education director.

Programs are flourishing in such unlikely places as Oklahoma and Utah, Iowa and New Hampshire, West Virginia and Texas. “That’s the great sea change,” Livaccari said. “It’s become incredibly diverse, available to all students across the board. There are great opportunities and challenges to a wider audience in the last five to six years.”

Each of the Confucius Classroom programs also works with a sister school in China on various projects. The Medgar Evers counterpart is in Jinhua in East China’s Zhejiang province.

What makes Medgar Evers a perfect environment is its unique approach. “We don’t follow the traditional middle school model,” Adilifu said. “We focus on an accelerated high school prep-early college program where students can take six to 15 credits at (neighboring) Medgar Evers College. We have our kids prepared to take the high school Regents (exam) in the eighth grade, which is not common in the city.”

Nor is such performance common in a school, like Medgar Evers, where 80 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch. These children do not come from privileged backgrounds.

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7 Responses to “Where do most Black Students learn Chinese?

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