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Sixth Graders Start Mandarin in Fall

Starting in September, Westport sixth graders will go global. For the first time, Mandarin will be offered as a world language in middle school. At Bedford Middle School and Coleytown Middle school, 76 students have signed up for the new program. Two-part time teachers will be hired to teach two classes at each of the schools. The schools already provide French and Spanish classes.

In its strategic plan, the Board of Education expressed interest in expanding the Mandarin program beyond high school- it is already offered at Staples.

“The emergence of China as a major player on the world scene has peaked everyone’s interest in Mandarin,” says Brian Fagan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Westport.

Fagan has first-hand experience supervising the instruction of Mandarin. He served as interim director of The Center for Global Studies in Norwalk, a program that offers Mandarin. As director, he visited CGS’s sister schools in China several times.

“It’s hard to fully appreciate the amount of effort and resources the Chinese government is putting into having their young people learn English,” said Fagan. “I’ve been in the countryside of China. Even there, the kids know English, though I’m the first native English speaker they’ve ever met. The Chinese greatly appreciate any effort that Americans put into learning their language. As our relationship with China becomes more intertwined, Americans who have a facility in Mandarin will have an advantage in whatever field they choose.”

Last November, Fagan sent out a survey to parents to see if there was an interest in learning Mandarin among families with fifth graders. At the time, 28 percent of fifth grade families expressed an interest though the actual enrollment has been slightly lower at 26 percent.

“I think there may be some apprehension because of the difficult nature of the language," said Fagan. "I appreciate that. But I’m confident that once we see kids learning a non-romance language, any anxiety will be set aside."

The schools will implement the program sequentially. Next year’s sixth graders will be the first cohort and the program will expand to the seventh grade the year after.

Last week, Superintendent Elliot Landon updated the board of education on the status of the program. He reminded board members that there is no additional cost to the district with the addition of this program. The cost of the new teachers is offset by the decline in enrollment in Spanish.

“Cost was an important consideration because of the budget constraints," he said.

Landon said there are many high quality teaching materials available and the curriculum will be written over the summer. The search for the new teacher is underway  He said that finding skilled Mandarin teachers will be the only challenge of this program.

“There is great demand,” he said.

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