Seven students opened freshly printed packets filled with Mandarin Chinese characters as 17- year-old Emily Zheng and 15- year-old Lillian Xu began the day's lesson.
In this fifth period class at State College Area High School, students are the teachers.
"I'm excited always to share my culture," 11th-grader Zheng said over the noise of students drawing characters on the blackboard, "but at the same time I was a little bit hesitant teaching people my age or older than me, because there are a lot of seniors in the class. It's still a process, but I think we're getting better at finding the teacher-friend-student balance in the class."
State College Area High School officials introduced the idea of adding Mandarin Chinese to the curriculum in the 2008-2009 school year. The school's curriculum council approved offering the course, as did the board in December 2008. But as the school prepared to pass a final budget in June 2009, the course was cut, due to financial reasons and the difficulty of finding a Chinese- language speaker who was also a certified teacher.
But staff in the high school's Learning Enrichment program decided they wouldn't take no for an answer. They asked Zheng and Xu if they would teach an informal, pass/fail Chinese course in addition to the courses they were taking. An English teacher who would normally be monitoring a study hall oversees the class. Zheng's mother, who was born in China, also attends classes, helping students with pronunciation and understanding the Chinese culture.
Xu and Zheng both grew up learning and speaking Chinese in their homes.
"I think having two languages makes it easier for me to express myself," said Xu, a 10th-grader, "Sometimes there's a word I can think of that describes how I'm feeling in one language, but it doesn't really have an equivalent in the other language. It's kind of strange, but there are different words that ... are more specific to a certain situation."
Zheng said their goal is to introduce the students to the language, so they'll have some knowledge if they decide to study it in the future or travel to China.
For several years, the U.S. Department of Education has listed both Arabic and Chinese as critical languages for national security and global competitiveness. Chinese is the second most common foreign language spoken in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The percentages of U.S. secondary schools offering foreign languages that teach Chinese and Arabic increased from 1 percent and none, respectively, in 1997 to 4 percent and 0.6 percent in 2008
— still far fewer than the number teaching languages such as French, Spanish and German.
State College Area High School offered Arabic as a foreign language in the 2008-09 school year. Lina Eid, a district French teacher who was born in Syria, taught it as a Learning Enrichment credit.
This year, she teaches Arabic 1 for a language credit, and today, the board is scheduled to vote on whether to offer Arabic 2 in 2010-2011. Offering Chinese for a language credit in 2010-11, however, is not being considered.
Corinna Munn signed up for the Chinese course last year. She's taking it now for Learning Enrichment credit during her free period.
"It's just a personal goal to learn as many languages as possible. I don't foresee myself working in China, but if I ever traveled, I'd like to be able to communicate," Munn said.
Cody Wild is a State College Area High School student and the first recipient of the Bill Welch Journalism Award, created by Young Writers of America.