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On an early spring day in Silver Creek, 18 first-graders are busy counting numbers, pronouncing words and reviewing colors – in Mandarin Chinese.

At a time when most schools are strapped for cash and cutting language classes and beloved electives, a handful of local schools have begun offering classes in Chinese language and culture through the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo.

The UB-based program was introduced to Western New York in 2011, and now eight schools – four public and four private – have it in place.

The local appetite for Mandarin is flourishing, with another four schools to start the program in the fall – bringing Chinese into classrooms from Buffalo to the suburbs and beyond.

Leaders at schools where the program is offered are thrilled at giving their students such an opportunity.

“It’s preparing our students for the future,” said Silver Creek Elementary Principal Scott Rudnicki. “We want them to be as prepared, and then some, in the global market, and this is one way we can do this. We’re one of few schools that have introduced Mandarin at the primary level. For me, it’s getting our kids to think about living beyond Silver Creek and know that they’re a bigger part of the puzzle in the world.”

The Confucius Institute program mixes language instruction with a strong cultural component. It’s being taught as early as kindergarten and, in some schools, through 12th grade. Some schools offer it after school to reach more children or are holding a summer camp.

For Eric Yang, executive director of the Confucius Institute at UB, the program is loaded with merit and appeal.

“To speak another language is a gift,” Yang said. “If you can speak Chinese, you can speak to one-fifth of the world population. With many interested to go to China to study, work, travel, or do business in China, people need to learn the language and culture.”

The Confucius Institute carefully selects and trains teachers from Beijing. The teachers are assigned to a host school, and housing is found for them in the community.

The teachers stay for three years in their assigned districts.

For the most part, it comes at a minimal cost to American schools. The schools typically pick up the discounted cost of the teacher’s visa application fee of $750 for the first year, and extensions for each of the following two years, along with the cost of supplies and providing a workspace.

The teachers’ housing and salaries – about $42,000 – are provided through the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which also runs the institute. It is a nongovernmental, nonpolitical organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education.

After the three years are over, it’s the institute’s hope that the district will want to continue offering Chinese. But the district would have to fund that mostly on its own.

Students embrace it

In the Silver Creek first-grade classroom, Zhao Shuo, 26, is crouched like a cat, gesturing with her hands to represent whiskers.

It was time for the kids’ favorite game in Chinese class: animal bingo. She would say the Mandarin word for cat, fish, horse, bird and dog.

Students excitedly searched for the animal on the game boards in front of them, in the hope of being rewarded with a Chinese sticker.

For 7-year-old Jorge Hasbun, learning Chinese is a fun challenge – not too confusing and, yet, something different.

“I’ve learned lots of words in Chinese. My favorite thing is you learn lots of words and play some of these games they do in China,” he said.

Classmate Stephanie Vancheri, 7, is sold on it.

“I think it’s kind of exciting because I only spoke English before and never spoke another language,” she said.

Tiny Silver Creek is not alone in bringing Chinese language and culture into the classroom.

The other two public school districts offering it are Depew and Lewiston-Porter in Niagara County. Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo also has the program.

St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Tonawanda, Canisius High School, Sacred Heart Academy and St. Benedict School in Eggertsville are the private schools offering the program.

Plans for expansion

Next school year, Canisius High School will begin its third year in the program, as well as add its own full-time Chinese teacher by hiring the former assistant director of the institute at UB. Canisius will offer three levels of Mandarin instruction.

That’s not to say that other school-based partnerships and exchanges between Buffalo-area schools and Chinese ones don’t already exist, but the Confucius Institute program is securing a strong foothold here.

Just as interesting as the unique educational offering itself is where it’s being offered and by whom.

Depew schools liked the idea of starting their students young when the program began last fall.

“The younger they are – they’re like little sponges,” said Depew Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey. “It’s a very, very difficult and complex language, so we wanted to start as early as possible.”

Rabey wants it to grow.

“I don’t want it to be a one-time shot. I want it to be sustainable. If we were able to get another teacher, we would be interested in growing it,” he said, explaining that it would enhance the foreign language offerings in Depew schools, not replace the French and Spanish currently taught there.

Giving kids ‘a leg up’

The growing momentum seems to be contagious. This fall, more schools will offer the Confucius Institute program. The expanded lineup includes East Aurora schools, Buffalo private schools Nardin Academy and Elmwood-Franklin School, and Niagara Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Niagara Falls.

East Aurora High School Principal Jay Hoagland is eager to bring the Chinese program to his district, with preliminary plans to offer one elementary class and a couple of classes at the middle school and to integrate it into the high school’s two-year international studies program, having it replace Japanese instruction.

“We certainly recognize the impact that China has on the world economy. Most of our kids are college-bound, and of the Asian countries and economies, we believe China will play the biggest role, and we need the kids to recognize this,” said Hoagland, who recently completed a principal exchange program in China. “If you go there, you can see how the economy is booming. It’s just incredible. If our kids are going to function in a worldwide economy, they have to know about China.”

As many East Aurorans travel on business to China, Hoagland thought his school community was a perfect fit for the program.

“It’s crazy not to expose our kids to this stuff. If you can speak the language, you really have a leg up on job applications,” he said.

Hoagland also has a keen sense of the business side of the equation.

“We’re competitive. We saw that Nardin was doing it, and some of our kids go to Nardin. So we figured we better offer it, too,” he said. “You can’t stay the same and keep offering the same-old, same-old curriculum at a time when school budgets are tight.”

Districts see success

The Confucious Institute is not the only means by which students learn Mandarin in public school. The Buffalo Public Schools has been offering Mandarin language classes at several of its schools – elementary through high school -- for many years.

Buffalo’s City Honors School offers the largest Mandarin program in the region with more than 300 students taking the language, said Principal William A. Kresse. Students there are also eligible to take International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Mandarin exams. While City Honors works cooperatively with the Confucious Institute, it has its own full-time Mandarin teachers, One of them has full state teaching certification, and the second is on track to receive certification, Kresse said.

Mandarin is also offered at Makowski Early Childhood Center and Olmsted School at Kensington.

In Niagara County, Lewiston-Porter has achieved success with the Confucius Institute-driven program and is believed to have been the first local public school to offer the program, beginning in the 2011-12 school year. Now, it’s offered districtwide, spanning kindergarten through 12th grade, and is broken up in eight-week segments. It’s also offered after school.

“I think it’s one of the most important things that we can do for our students right now,” said Paul Casseri, Lew-Port’s high school principal. “Obviously, we’d like them to walk out speaking Mandarin fluently, but we hope we let them see the importance of themselves within the global economy, and China, too.”

Lew-Port already is enjoying the success, with its high school winning special designation by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, making it eligible for up to $10,000 in starting funds and up to $20,000 of materials to continue the program past the first three years.

On the North Buffalo border, Chinese teacher Si Baohong, 42, teaches boys in their senior year at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. The school already knows it wants to offer an after-school component to reach more grade levels. Since fall, Si has been teaching not only the basics to 12th-grade boys, but also how to sing in Chinese and to cook fried rice and other Chinese favorites. They also are learning how to type in Chinese and celebrating the “Year of the Snake.”

“In seven months, I think the boys have made great progress,” Si said in English, noting how the boys recently interacted in Mandarin with her visiting husband. “They’ve learned Mandarin beyond my expectation.”

After the three-year program through the Confucius Institute-provided teacher ends, St. Joe’s Principal Jeffery Hazel hopes the effort can continue.

“In three years, we really want to make it permanent. The interest is there among the students and teachers to see it continue,” said Hazel, who approached the Confucius Institute about starting the program. “It’s a genuine opportunity to learn something new.”

Cost is always a factor

Not every school district seems ready to embrace the Chinese program offered by the Confucius Institute.

“It’s a very difficult environment to start new programs,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff. His district has discussed the Chinese program, but a survey within the district a few years ago showed limited interest.

“For us, as a bigger district, it’s a challenge because we have six elementary schools, four middle schools and three high schools. You’re talking about 13 schools. It’s a pretty significant investment.”

If financial strain eases in a few years, Martzloff said, he’d like to see foreign language opportunities offered as young as kindergarten.

“The first thing a superintendent will look at is, ‘Do I have the budget capacity, and is it sustainable?’ ” said Donald Ogilvie, district superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “Offering Mandarin would definitely seem to justify itself. I don’t believe it would be offered if it weren’t for a high level of interest by a patron organization.

“At some point, the districts that have not joined in will watch the other districts to determine how these programs become sustainable.”

email: krobinson@buffnews.com