On the day Christopher Tirone turned 12, his classmates at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills sang him the Happy Birthday song in Chinese.
Christopher and the other sixth-graders in his class in the Half Hollow Hills School District represent the second year that the district has offered Mandarin Chinese to its students.
"At first my family wanted me to take Italian, but I took the Chinese classes and I liked it," Christopher said.
Educators there say that with the rise of China in global prominence, students should have the option of learning Chinese. Half Hollow Hills also offers the more traditional Romance languages of Spanish, French and Italian, said Francesco L. Fratto, the district's coordinator of languages other than English and English as a Second Language.
And, they believe that the effort should extend beyond the Half Hollow Hills borders. The district hosted a meeting yesterday for other Long Island educators to familiarize them with Mandarin as well as partner them with resources from New York University, the state Education Department and the China Institute, an organization devoted to advancing a deeper understanding of China.
Dealing with challenges
"This is the direction in which we need to go," said Pat Lo, director of Asian Languages Bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center, New York University.
But there are challenges, including a lack of available certified teachers of Mandarin and few textbooks on the market.
Fratto said when the district looked to hire a certified Mandarin teacher, they had only two applicants. Now, their teacher, Ying Zhang, splits her time between two schools, Candlewood and West Hollow Middle School. She teaches about 70 students each day.
Robin Harvey, coordinator for the Center for Developing Chinese Language Teachers at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU, said 30 students are studying now to get their master's in teaching Mandarin Chinese. Also, Nassau BOCES has helped districts by placing Chinese language teachers.
When Fratto sought textbooks for the class, he ran into challenges as well. American publishers are printing only college-level texts and the secondary level books are published by companies in China with limited supply.
The state does not offer a Regents exam or proficiency exam in Mandarin. Fratto said local districts plan to work together to create a 10th-grade Regents exam and an eighth-grade proficiency exam that will be administered to students. These exams would be based on existing foreign language exams. He said the state has indicated they would recognize the exam and students would be given credit.
In Half Hollow Hills, the sixth-graders who started Chinese this year can continue with the program through their senior year in high school.
By then, their teacher said, they should be able to understand and speak the language very well and hopefully take a Chinese Advanced Placement exam.
"I like the challenge of it," said student Samantha Pierre-Louis, 11. "It's really unique in its own way."