TOPSHAM, Maine — Strips of bright red paper laced with Chinese characters line the outer wall of the Chinese Language and Culture classroom.
Teacher Juan Wang tells her students such “spring calligraphy” adorns houses in China to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Wang tells stories of various festivals from her native country; she says the costumes and the traditions give students a better understanding of Chinese culture.
She often talks about the city of Xi’an, where she grew up.
“My students are very interested in my hometown,” she said.
Mt. Ararat High School is among 17 Maine high schools offering Chinese programs this year. The middle school is one of only three.
Don Reutershan, a world languages specialist with the Maine Department of Education, said Maine has followed a national trend of increased interest in Chinese. He said there were only four or five schools offering Chinese five years ago, when Mt. Ararat began.
Wang came from China to Mt. Ararat High School to teach Chinese through a guest teacher program, as Yang Xin did the year before. The school’s first Chinese language and culture teacher, Wei Wu, taught the first three years.
The course covers reading Chinese books and writing, Chinese language, along with speaking, media, history, food, music and art — a comprehensive look at the world’s most populous country.
But as Maine schools cut back amid yet another difficult budget cycle, School Administrative District 75 officials are poised to phase out the Chinese program in Topsham.
In a preliminary vote April 11, the school board voted to budget only $10,000 to support “continued opportunities” — possibly through technology — to allow current students to study, but closing the program to new students.
After a lengthy debate, the board voted 7-6, in a show of hands, to cut the Chinese teaching position and phase out the program. Final budget approval is set for April 25.
School board chairwoman Joanne Rogers expressed dismay over eliminating the program.
“If we continue to cut what we have,” Rogers said, “we’re going to lose what we stand for, and I think it’s time to say, ‘No. Let’s take a look at it.’ I’m not willing to eliminate the Chinese teaching position.”
Current and past students agree, but the program remains on the chopping block.
‘Really nice class’
Hours before the April 11 school board meeting, sophomore Ben York sat at a desk in Wang’s classroom with seven other students enthusiastically pronouncing Chinese characters.
York, who attended a budget forum to argue for keeping the program, said he began studying Chinese in eighth grade after five years of home schooling.
“Chinese is an ever-expanding language and culture, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
“It’s been a fascinating language,” he said. “I really enjoy the structure of it. It’s a very logical language. The grammar is very straightforward, and it doesn’t have any of the exceptions for rules that English does.
“Unlike most of the other languages offered, you don’t have to conjugate verbs or attach meaningless genders to inanimate objects.”
York is particularly intrigued with writing Chinese characters.
“We focus primarily on learning the pinyin,” which he said is the pronunciation of the Chinese characters as written in the English alphabet.
Everett Johnson, a sophomore, took French in middle school but moved into Chinese in ninth grade.
“Chinese is going to be a major language in the world,” Johnson said, “because China is massive” and increasing in economic and social importance.
In his first class, Johnson said students were assigned Chinese names.
His is Ai Wen, which means “love knowledge.”
The course, he said, “is quite fast-paced, and you can definitely learn a lot.” By the end of the first year, students were making basic sentences.
“I definitely was impressed with how much I learned,” he said.
As with York, Johnson, who is interested in studying genetic engineering after high school, said he expected to take Chinese all four years in high school — an opportunity that’s now in doubt.
“It’s a really nice class,” Johnson said, “and it’s also nice because [of] the Chinese teachers.”
Because they come from China, “it’s a new experience for them, as well. We get to learn Chinese, and they get to experience America.”
A different conversation
SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith reminded board members at their April 11 meeting of the district’s deepening budget woes.
Three issues alone — $492,291 for new retirement costs, $242,000 to cover an 11 percent increase in health insurance and $359,392 to pay for 34 district students to attend new charter schools — have created a budget hole of more than $1 million.
“What a different conversation we’d be having if those things weren’t before us, but they are … and we have to move forward,” Smith said.
Removing the Chinese teaching position, as proposed in the current budget plan, will save $30,000.
The board talked about hiring a teacher at half-time or 80 percent — at costs of $21,561 or $34,498, respectively.
But Finance Committee member Linda Hall said that, with 34 students taking Chinese this year and a world language program offering three other languages, continuing Chinese doesn’t seem reasonable.
The most recent numbers show 10 students each have signed up for Chinese next school year in grades 10 and 11; three in grade 12.
Mt. Ararat High School Principal Craig King — one of the program’s founders and biggest backers — seems resigned to the idea of losing Chinese. Students are still able to sign up for Chinese as they select their classes for this fall, but students have been aware that the program could be cut, he said.
Chinese comes to Topsham
King said he was interested in starting a Chinese program in 2004, when he came to the school.
A year later, he began looking at options, and consulted Chinese professors at Bowdoin College about how to incorporate Asian studies into Mt. Ararat High School.
Serendipitously, King said, officials were made aware of a program developed by the College Board, working with the Chinese Ministry of Education, in which the College Board pays teachers from China to teach in the United States on a two-year contract.
King recalls a pilot program was underway in Guilford at the time. The teacher there was invited to a symposium in the spring of 2006 at Mt. Ararat High School, along with representatives from China, the College Board, and SAD 75 officials, students and teachers.
The event convinced King the program was high-quality. So Mt. Ararat applied for and received two consecutive College Board grants that paid 80 percent of a Chinese teaching salary for three years.
Topsham resident Liz Armstrong connected King with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation in China, which agreed to fund the additional 20 percent — $8,000 — for those three years.
Last school year, the fourth year of the Chinese program, the deal was extended: King said the College Board paid 80 percent and he “found a way” to fund the other 20 percent.
But the program grew more expensive and complex, King said, and the district had to decide if it wanted to continue the program on its own.
With German, Spanish and French offered at Mt. Ararat, “Did we need another language?” King asked. “No. But I felt it very important, if we’re going to be a progressive school district and going to prepare students for the 21st century.”
The course has allowed students to expand their global view and know that “China is out there; Asia is out there, and is important,” King said.
A global view
Mt. Ararat High School alumnus Dan Van Note is proof of that importance.
Van Note started taking Chinese the first year it was offered. Now a junior at Davidson College in North Carolina, he spent last semester studying in Shanghai.
Van Note wrote in an email that studying Chinese at Mt. Ararat allowed him to pursue an interest in Asian culture and languages that continues to this day.
“I was able to receive a scholarship to study abroad in Shanghai after my junior year of high school, and through that experience I felt all the more prepared for my time spent there last semester with Davidson,” he wrote.
While in Shanghai, one of his four classes was taught in Chinese; all encompassed Chinese history and culture.
Van Note, majoring in anthropology with a minor in economics, said he plans to pursue arts management after college.
While in Shanghai, he was able to choreograph a dance piece as part of the student dance organization at Fudan University.
“I loved living in China,” he said, “especially when I had the freedom this past semester to explore the city and have more independence.
“Chinese is one of the most important world languages for our students to learn,” he added, “and it is important that we find the most effective means to encourage that learning.”
Mt. Ararat senior Pann Nwe said she and her family came to the United States six years ago because her parents wanted her to have more opportunities than the dictatorship in her native Burma could offer.
She had started learning English in kindergarten in Burma. At Mt. Ararat, she began taking Chinese in ninth grade, learning it quickly and mastering the level of Chinese IV by her junior year.
With no higher level of Chinese to take, she mentors as a teaching assistant for Chinese I students, which includes three seniors along with freshmen.
There are many Chinese speakers in the world, Nwe said. “Chinese is like a second universal language that, if you want to go into business,” you should know, she said.
Nwe — a 2011 recipient of a National Security Languages Initiative for Youth scholarship — visited China for six weeks as a student ambassador, with 19 other Maine students.
She wants to continue studying Chinese in college.
“I don’t want to forget it,” she said. “The language is really beautiful.”
She is headed to Simmons College in Boston, where she may double-major in public health and biology and minor in Chinese.
She added, “If you want to work in the [United Nations] or something, you have to know one of those [widely spoken] languages and Chinese is one of the big languages.”
When the College Board program fell into the district’s lap, “I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better,” King said, lauding a guest teacher program that gives students a one-on-one relationship with a highly skilled, university-educated, native Chinese teacher.
But the grant works as most do — providing funds for three or four years, so school districts can establish a program.
If it works, “you fund it on your own,” King said.
With the district amid five or six years of financial difficulty, having already trimmed waste and redundancy, “It’s just really bad timing,” he said.
Still, King sees a glass that’s half full.
“Yes, we’re losing this and yes, it’s painful, and I think it’s really unfortunate we’re losing it,” but he emphasized the school will continue to offer Spanish, German and French.
King said he recently interviewed 18 college deans — from competitive colleges such as Bowdoin, Colby, Tufts, Duke and Harvard — who told him, “What they’re looking for is, ‘Are you taking harder courses and the most competitive courses your school has to offer?’”
Should students have to jump to another language, “I don’t think it will count against them,” King said.
That’s cold comfort to students like York, who have relished the unique experience firsthand.
“When I signed up for Chinese,” he said, “I expected it to be a four-year program throughout high school.”