SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As the world changes, so have the foreign language offerings at U.S. schools. It's not just German, Spanish and French anymore. Increasingly, it's Mandarin Chinese, and that makes sense. No language on earth has more native speakers. But this fall, administrators at one public school system are requiring Mandarin instruction for each and every student. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Adam Ragusea reports.

ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: Public schools in Macon, Georgia and surrounding Bibb County have a lot of problems. Most of the 25,000 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch, half don't graduate. Enter Romain Dallemand, Bibb County's Haitian-born superintendent who came into the job last year with a bag of reforms he calls the Macon Miracle. Longer schools days, year-round instruction, and the one nobody saw coming - Mandarin Chinese for every student, pre-K through 12th grade.

ROMAIN DALLEMAND: Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they'll be at the pinnacle of their career. They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.

HUILING LI: Oh, yes. All of them. And...

RAGUSEA: This school year, Dallemand starts rolling out Mandarin in stages, a few sessions a week, with the youngest kids starting first. In three years it'll be at every grade level.

LI: Zai.

GROUP: Zai.

LI: Zai.

GROUP: Zai.

RAGUSEA: Instructor Huiling Li stands in front of wide-eyed second graders, confidently slashing the air to indicate a falling tone.

GROUP: Zai jian.

LI: Zai jian.

GROUP: Zai jian.

LI: And zai jian means?

GROUP: Goodbye.

LI: Goodbye, yes, goodbye.

RAGUSEA: Li and other young teachers from China are being provided to Bibb County schools by a nearby Confucius Institute, non-profit cultural centers partially funded by the Chinese government. Beijing wants to spread Mandarin abroad, and at just $16,000 per instructor per year, the price is right for Superintendent Dallemand.

DALLEMAND: Well, it's a win-win for everyone.

RAGUSEA: Though not everyone here sees it that way. Some parents see a communist regime enacting its geopolitical agenda on their children. The more common critique however is not political. It's the practical concern Dina McDonald shares from her front porch in Macon.

DINA MCDONALD: Bibb County is not known for producing the highest achieving graduates. You'll see that many of them can't even speak basic English.

RAGUSEA: McDonald herself has a 9th grader in the public schools and says she can imagine some students going into fields where Mandarin could be useful.

MCDONALD: In international business or technology or law.

RAGUSEA: But with lower achievers...

MCDONALD: Do you want to teach them how to say do you want fries with that in Mandarin?

DALLEMAND: The question is, what kind of education should we provide every single one of our students?

RAGUSEA: Again, Superintendent Dallemand.

DALLEMAND: Not some, but all of our students. We believe that every child can be successful if the adults around them create the conditions for them to be successful.

MARINA SPEARS: (Foreign language spoken)

RAGUSEA: Brazilian-born Marina Spears and her husband Eric are also Bibb County parents, and they agree: fluency in the languages of emerging economies is key. Their kids already speak Portuguese at home.

SPEARS: We are obviously for a foreign language. I think in a perfect world, we would have been given the choice.

RAGUSEA: If parents insist, there is an opt-out provision for the Mandarin curriculum, but that's not the kind of choice they're talking about.

ERIC SPEARS: While we do know that Mandarin is a critical language, another critical language here in the United States is Spanish, with our changing demographics.

RAGUSEA: And Bibb high schools will continue to offer Spanish and French on top of the Mandarin, but for most of the elementary kids, it's Chinese or nada. Considering the Hispanic population doubled in Georgia over the last census period, the why not Spanish question is one Superintendent Dallemand gets a lot.

DALLEMAND: My wife is a Latina, and so I fully understand.

RAGUSEA: But he responds with a sentiment borrowed from former World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

DALLEMAND: It is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.

RAGUSEA: And for that future, Dallemand says there is no choice but Mandarin Chinese.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea in Macon, Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.