Friday, November 19, 2010

TOP STORY > >PCSSD defends China trip

By john hofheimer
Leader senior staff writer

Superintendent Charles Hopson is leading a delegation of eight from the Pulaski County Special School District on a sponsored, weeklong trip to China, the first steps toward a program to teach Mandarin Chinese to some district students.

Detractors brought word of the China trip to the public before the district could craft its announcement, according to PCSSD spokesman Deb Roush, claiming that it would be costly to the district and was not a proper use of district resources.

“We’re real excited about this,”Roush said. “It’s a good thing.”

The program brings Ameri-can school officials to China to see the culture and the education system there, and then helps match them up with Chinese teachers.

Currently, nine Arkansas school districts have Chinese teachers teaching Mandarin to students in their districts.

A letter, purportedly from an unnamed “former administrator” to the head of the state Legislative Audit, claims PCSSD could spend the money better, maybe for Spanish classes, or could find a Chinese teacher without leaving the state. The author says he (or she) is “furious.”

A link to the letter was published by Dawn Jackson on her SavePCSSD.Org website, which has been closely associated with the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

Of the skepticism, Hopson said, “I think because of the experiences of the past, people are just suspicious, and they probably have a right to be. As an instructional leader, it’s part of trying to put the district at an advantage.

“I’m moving very, very fast and there are a lot of things—strategic planning—a lot happening at the same time. I didn’t anticipate that this would rise to the surface as a negative thing, but a celebration.”

Board president Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville originally ex-pressed some skepticism, but now calls the program “wonderful.”

“If we’re going to be business partners with China in the global economy, this is a pretty positive thing.”

Vasquez said communications could have been better. He hadn’t heard of the trip before this week, even though Hopson and the others leave Dec. 2, and even though the board appropriated about $3,423 for the district’s share of the eight plane tickets.

“This is good for the district, good for the state and good for our children,” said Vasquez. 

“The expense is minimal.”

He said Riceland hires people who can speak Chinese to help them open up markets in China.

Tim Clark, who was board president at the time that ar-rangements for the trip were made, will be among the eight, but he has paid for his own plane ticket, according to Roush.

“It is part of a partnership between the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, working through the Confucius Institute at the University of Central Arkansas in collaboration with the Arkansas Department of Education,” Roush said.

“Our group is going as part of an American delegation of Arkansas educators from across the state. The program is called Teach Chinese in Arkansas, and the goal is to help schools in our state develop Chinese language programs as part of their curriculum,” she added.

Other Arkansas school districts going on the trip are Beebe, Wynne, Lincoln and Hot Springs, according to Jingjing Li, deputy director of the UCA Confucius Institute.

Arkansas school districts already involved in the three-year-old program are Hot Springs, North Little Rock, Cross County, Harrisburg, Batesville, Conway, Waldron and Wynne and based in Farmington, the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, she said.

The Hanban, which is a Chinese governmental organization under which the Confucius Institute operates, pays each of the teachers $12,000 a year, with the individual district picking up the rest of the teacher’s salary and benefits, according to Li.

Currently, 11 teachers from China are teaching Chinese language courses to about 1,000 students in nine Arkansas school districts, Li said.

The Confucius Institute has programs in more than 60 countries and dozens of school districts in the United States. Roush said the district expects to incorporate Chinese in the Robinson feeder-pattern schools and at the new high school in Maumelle.

“We are also looking to expand the program in the College Station feeder pattern,” she said.

Those making the trip, in addition to Hopson and Clark, are College Station principal Lisa Watson, Maumelle principal Joy Plants, Robinson High School principal Yoluandra Williams, Robinson Middle School principal Cherrie Walker and Bruce Bryant, who oversees curriculum for the district.

Crystal Hills Elementary teacher Cindy Casto, who is of Chinese heritage and helped organize the trip, will travel as a translator, Roush said.

Why is PCSSD interested in providing Chinese language classes?

“Chinese is the most widely spoken first language, spoken by 1.3 billion people. More than 200 million Chinese school children are studying English, but only 50,000 students in the U.S. are studying Chinese,” Roush said. “This will give PCSSD students the edge.”

Hopson’s goal in building partnerships with the groups involved in the trip “is to help us incorporate Chinese into our curriculum and is part of his plan to help PCSSD become a world-class district offering a global standard of excellence,” she said.

“We have the opportunity to make our district better,” Hopson said, “to bring to a global standard and to give our students access another global economic language.

“It’s exciting that we are able to bring enrichment opportunities to the district,” he said. 

“Conway is ahead of us, they started a year or two ago. Arkansas is late to the process.”

The delegation will arrive in Beijing, where they will attend an official welcoming event and tour the city for a few days. Members will then visit one of several host provinces, where they will participate in educational activities, visit schools and sightsee “to experience the diversity of the landscape and culture.”

The Confucius Institute says the days will be long and rigorous—quite demanding, and that delegates are expected to attend all activities and events.

The institute says the trip will help educate the educators about Chinese language, culture, and society with workshops and school visits.

The activities and itinerary are specially tailored to the needs of schools and districts looking for resources to start offering Chinese language and/or culture courses.

In addition to paying half of the airfare, the institute will pay for hotel accommodations, meals and local transportation.

The Arkansas Department of Education has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Confucius Institute and will send a representative to interview prospective Chinese teachers.

Some of the programs have been “wildly successful,” according to Education Department spokesman Julie Thompson. In one case, the Chinese teacher had trouble adjusting to the culture.

“It is beneficial to the students,” she said. “The program is good.”

Although the prospective teachers have master’s degrees in teaching Chinese as a second language, the state will help them get certified for alternative teaching certification, Thompson said.