Sierra Sailor greeted the guests in her classroom with a soft-spoken "Ni hao."
She forgot the plural and tried again, "Nimen hao." But the guests in her classroom were older, so Sailor, 14, needed a third try to get it right, remembering the respectful Chinese greeting, "Nin hao."
The nuances of Mandarin have not discouraged Sailor in her first semester studying the language at Upper St. Clair High School. She wants to visit China and knows that learning the world's most-spoken language could help in whatever career she chooses.
"I think it's really important to learn a certain language that's used in the future," she said. "A lot of people say that (Mandarin) is hard, but if you have that inspiration to do it ... it makes it easy to learn."
Next fall, she will be among about 130 students in the region's two biggest Mandarin programs at Upper St. Clair and A. W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless. These blossoming Chinese programs are the biggest change for local schools since the federal government boosted financing two years ago for "critical foreign languages," including Japanese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.
Upper St. Clair is adding Arabic, several districts are exploring Internet programs to teach critical languages and others have implemented pre-secondary foreign language programs in recent years. Yet many more are likely still limited to Spanish, French and German in high school-only programs, said Bonnie Youngs, former president of the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association.
"Everybody would love to be able to add foreign languages, but for whatever reason it's not supported," said Youngs, associate teaching professor of French and Francophone studies at Carnegie Mellon University. "Maybe it's going into the football program; maybe it's going into the fact that the (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which does not test for foreign language skill) has become so mighty in the state."
To create or expand a program, a district must have community support, several educators said. Sometimes, even that isn't enough.
Both Franklin Regional and Mt. Lebanon school districts expanded their programs to lower grades in the past decade. Sixth-graders at Franklin Regional can choose French or Spanish; Spanish is mandatory in Mt. Lebanon from first through fifth grades.
But both districts are phasing out other programs because of low enrollment: German at Franklin Regional and Japanese at Mt. Lebanon. Mt. Lebanon actually taught Chinese about 20 years ago, but when their teacher retired in the 1990s, the district had to drop it, spokeswoman Cissy Bowman said.
Of the 4,015 foreign language teachers in Pennsylvania public schools last year, only 58 are certified in the critical languages of Chinese, Japanese and Russian, according to state Department of Education statistics.Districts are beginning to get around that limitation by using distance learning and by sharing programs.
Elizabeth Forward and 12 other districts in the state have students taking college-level courses in Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese through an online program with Seton Hill University in Greensburg. Franklin Regional and several neighboring schools are looking into joining that program, said Shelley L. Shaneyfelt, the director of instructional services and public relations.
Mt. Lebanon is starting a pilot program for Internet learning in Arabic and Mandarin. The district had 27 students apply for five spots, said Nancy R. Campbell, supervisor of world languages and libraries.
Upper St. Clair hired a French teacher several years ago who also is certified to teach Arabic. He will lead the high school's first Arabic class with 16 students this fall.
"I think kids are seeing a lot about Arabic in the news," said Deanna Baird, Upper St. Clair's foreign language curriculum leader. "They're seeing Asia is a big power in the world. They're seeing it from a real practical perspective."
At least seven of the nine districts Beattie serves in the northern suburbs are enrolling students in the Mandarin classes there for next year, said Matt Roberts, the school's curriculum coordinator. More districts from outside that group, including Moon Area, are considering a distance-learning partnership with the school.
"It's the next step of advancing education," said Mark Scappe, Moon's board president. "Everyone had the standard ... German, French and Spanish, but now the other cultures are becoming more predominant."
Demand for such programs will increase once parents learn more about them, Roberts said.
"Every district, if they want to stay competitive, they need to offer Chinese, or some critical-need language, within the next five years," he said. "If they aren't looking to do this, they need to start looking, because they're doing their students a disservice."