More than 100 Ashland High School students are learning Mandarin from a native speaker this fall, through a program funded by the Chinese government and the district.
Chinese teacher Jennifer Guo arrived in Ashland in mid-August, and began teaching five beginning Mandarin Chinese classes at the high school this month.
"We understand that, for these kids, Chinese is going to be a major player in their world," said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro. "It will be valuable for them to understand the culture and language."
The Chinese government is providing Guo with a housing allowance and a $17,000 salary, and the district will pay her an additional $10,000 this academic year, Di Chiro said.
The district partnered with St. Mary's School in Medford, which is a member of the Chinese government's Confucius Classroom program, to bring Guo to Ashland.
Central Point School District also has a Chinese teacher for the first time this year, teaching middle school classes.
The Southern Oregon Educational Service District has two Chinese teachers — one more than last year. The district will offer videotaped Chinese lessons to students in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.
A fifth Chinese teacher is holding classes at Southern Oregon University.
For the first time this year, St. Mary's has brought 28 high school students from China to live at SOU and take classes at St. Mary's. Di Chiro hopes the Ashland students studying Chinese will be able to interact with the Chinese students studying English.
"I think it will be really helpful for our students to talk with Chinese students who are their own age," she said. "And I know the Chinese students have expressed a strong desire to spend time with American students, so they can immerse themselves in the language."
Slightly more than 100 students signed up for the beginning Mandarin classes at Ashland High School, many more than district officials expected, Di Chiro said.
Many of the students are in ninth grade, and they hope to take Chinese for three or four years, Di Chiro said.
Josiah Olsen, 14, is one of those students. He hopes to become fluent in Mandarin and to eventually live in China, he said.
"China is important in the economic and business world, and knowing Chinese could really help you expand a business," he said. "I want to take Chinese for as long as it's offered."
The students learning Mandarin will have the opportunity to take a three-week summer trip to China, funded entirely by the Chinese government except for airfare, at least once while they're in high school, Di Chiro said.
Learning Chinese has been difficult, but enjoyable, said ninth-grade student Kasey Sullivan, 14.
"We have to learn sounds that we don't even make in the English language," she said. "It's hard at first, but it's getting easier and it's really fun."
Kasey has so far learned how to write and pronounce numbers, do math problems and say, "Hello, my name is Kasey," in Mandarin, she said.
Guo has so far taught without textbooks, because the delivery of the books has been delayed. The books are on a slow boat from China and are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, Di Chiro said.
The district hopes Guo will continue to teach at the high school for three years, the maximum time the Chinese government allows.
Guo, whose Chinese first name is Xuan, holds a master's degree in teaching Chinese as a second language and is in the process of securing a temporary Oregon teaching license, valid for three years, Di Chiro said. The state should issue Guo a license in the next few weeks, Di Chiro said, but until then, retired Spanish teacher Glenna Brewold is supervising Guo's classes.
Guo could not comment for this story, because she must receive clearance from the Chinese government to speak to the media, a process that takes weeks, Di Chiro said.
The Chinese government's Confucius Classroom program has an annual budget of more than $1 billion, Di Chiro said. The government funds the international program in order to teach students from other cultures about modern China, she said.
"China is becoming more and more industrialized," Di Chiro said. "And I think there's a belief in China that other countries don't have an understanding of current China. But hopefully our students will."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.