The Chinese language is being taught for the first time in a new public high school in Newark, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s high-profile $100 million donation two years ago can take some of the credit.
Bard High School Early College opened in the Springfield neighborhood in Newark last fall, with 87 ninth graders and 36 11th graders, and the goal of helping gifted students get a jump on college. Eventually the high school will have about 400 ninth through 12th graders.
The school, a partnership between Bard College and the Newark Public Schools system, was launched with $550,000 from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the charitable organization created to match Zuckerberg’s $100 million challenge grant. It is one of three alternative schools opened in Newark with Facebook money. The donation was announced with great fanfare on the Oprah Winfrey Show by Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, in September 2010. Last year, Bard College, a private liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley, also received $60 million from Open Society Foundations for its dedication to public interest, including its early college program.
Founders of the school hoped that one big draw for college-bound Newark students would be to learn Chinese. It may have seemed jarring at first, to consider teaching Chinese in a city where only 2 percent of the students are Asian, and where the graduation rate hovered around 55 percent. But the founders of the highly selective Bard High School believe it is more than a luxury language for privileged kids in private schools.
“There is nothing luxurious about it,” said Michael Weinstein, the program’s chief founder and teacher. Weinstein, a Harvard graduate who earned his Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Columbia University, teaches three periods of Chinese. “You can do it with very basic things.”
Weinstein said there was resistance to teaching Chinese at first, based on the belief that it would be too difficult for Newark kids to learn.
“For the students, after a few weeks of using characters, they just accept it as a normal thing,” said Weinstein. “They read the sentences in characters and it’s fine.” Some of his students are able to write dialogues using complex grammar and characters by the end of the first semester.
On a recent Monday morning in April, 13 ninth graders in one of Newark’s new selective high schools were experimenting with what is often considered the trickiest part about speaking Chinese —its four tones. Weinstein wrote three different Chinese pictograms on the blackboard; each was pronounced “shi,” using different tones. One meant “stuff,” the other “is,” and the third meant “10.” About half the class got the tones right.
Jasmine Ellis, a ninth grader, was one who knew all the tones. “I decided to learn Chinese because I had been learning Spanish all through middle school,” said Ellis, dressed in a pink hoodie and gray pants. “I was not very interested in that.” She wanted something new. She began to listen to Chinese popular music to help her learn the language.
Bard School, which has two sister schools in Manhattan and Queens that opened in 2001 and 2008 respectively, selects students through a combination of methods: a test in math and English, an interview, a review of the students’ report card, an attendance record, and a teachers’ recommendation. Students are expected to finish high school in two years and continue with college-level studies in the remaining two years. Eighty percent of the student body is African American, 16 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white and 1 percent multiracial.
Currently the school offers two foreign languages: Spanish and Chinese. Students experience both languages in two five-week sessions in their first semester and then choose one to stick with for the next three years. More ninth graders chose Mandarin over Spanish.
Yolanda Lewis said she chose Chinese because she is already fluent in Spanish. Now she loves her Chinese class.
“I think it’s awesome. I am having a lot of fun with it,” said Lewis, who said she sometimes practices with a Chinese friend. “I am Hispanic so it’s a whole different language. But I like the teacher, the class, and we all work well together.”
For Weinstein, whose interest in Chinese started at age 6, learning Chinese has a real world application. China is obviously a big part of America’s future and of the world and every student should have a chance to learn it.
“If students don’t have access to Chinese, they don’t have access to a tool that would be very useful that students in more privileged areas will have more of an access to,” said Weinstein. “I am trying to level the playing field and giving all the students the opportunity to learn Chinese if they want to. There is a key equalizing factor.”
Another benefit of learning Chinese, Weinstein said, is to open a door to the world beyond Newark and help the students have a deeper understanding when they encounter people who are different from they are.
“They will have a different attitude towards the Chinese language, towards people from China, towards people who don’t speak English,” Weinstein said. The Chinese language doesn’t have articles, such as “the” or “a.’ Students who know that will understand why Chinese speakers in English drop the articles. “That’s a beginning of the conversation about why when you meet someone from another country, they might have certain errors of English.”
As for the students, the impact is already evident. They all said they would love to visit China.
“I want to see the culture, the life and the dishes,” said N’Ja Berry, a ninth grader who said she would like to continue studying Chinese in college. “I also want to see parades.”
While the students are interested in the Chinese language and culture, they also acknowledge the practical side of learning Chinese and China’s growing influence in the world.
“Chinese is the most spoken language in the world,” Ellis said, adding that she also likes Chinese food, particularly lo-mein and vegetable fried rice. “I think it will help me in the future.”
“We used to have a joke with my friends: China is going to take over the world,” said Lewis. “So it would be helpful to know Chinese, just in case.”