Mandarin is the world's most spoken language, and by the time Kirkwood's Toomer Elementary children graduate from college, China will be the No. 2 economy in the world. And since Chinese is a character-based language, learning it develops a different portion of the brain than a Romance-based language such as Spanish, and test scores tend to increase.
Members of the Kirkwood Neighborhood Organization, Principal Tonya Saunders at Toomer and Principal Andre Williams at Coan Middle School wrote a grant to the Georgia Department of Education requesting funds for a study on successful K-12 models of Chinese language instruction. A portion of the funding was used to conduct workshops for the Toomer PTA on what a Chinese curriculum would mean. From fall 2006 to spring 2007, a small team of parents, educators and community members visited programs in Chicago, the Washington, D.C. area, and Portland, Ore., and reported back to the community and other key players on the programs' successes and struggles.
At first there were concerns about whether Chinese should replace Spanish as the language of study. Some parents and teachers felt that since Spanish is so prevalent in our society, children would need it to interact. That is true, but an anecdote from the Chicago visit revealed what really gives a child a competitive advantage. A CEO of a Fortune 100 company at a roundtable was asked the last time he saw a Spanish requirement for a job. He hadn't since the early '90s because the skill was so prevalent within his company. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, would be immediately recognized as a desirable skill.
This issue and others were addressed in the workshops for the PTA and the teachers over the course of the year. Additionally, the PTA and teachers voted on the change.
At the same time the trips and presentations were taking place, the Kirkwood community, APS, and the Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures of Emory University began talking about forming a cooperation to support the language program once it started. The Hanban, a Chinese government agency, presented an opportunity to fund a language institute, and a partnership between APS, Emory and their partner Nanjing University – with Kirkwood steering the way – led to the first Confucius Institute in the Southeast outside of a university. The Confucius Institute opened March 19 and is based at Coan Middle School in Kirkwood. It is administered by the three partners, and serves as a resource center for teacher training, curriculum design and Chinese classes for the community.
APS hired three native-speaking teachers this past fall. Spanish was replaced with Chinese at Toomer and French was discontinued at Coan. With two teachers at Toomer, the kindergarten class receives 30 minutes a day of language instruction. A gradual phase-in program will eventually have all students taking Chinese daily. At Coan Middle School, one teacher provides 45 minutes of instruction four times a week to students in the sixth and seventh grades, with eighth grade being added next year.
The Chinese language program is only one of many efforts over six years – from school volunteer days to teacher appreciation breakfasts – that the Kirkwood Neighborhood Organization has developed to support our schools. And Atlanta Public Schools has welcomed the community's interaction – all to build stronger schools, and a strong Atlanta.
Douglas L. Wood has lived in Kirkwood for more than eight years with his wife and two children. He serves as president of the KNO and has two children who will attend Toomer Elementary School in fall 2008.