An e-mailed letter to Ross School parents on Aug. 8 announced the addition of Mandarin Chinese as part of the lower-school curriculum, something that was welcomed by parents as a further step in Ross’s mission of creating “global citizens.”
But it was the next letter from Michele Claeys, head of school, announcing that Mandarin would be required in grades kindergarten through 12, and a degree of fluency would be necessary for graduation — with Spanish relegated to before or after school lessons for K through 8 — that had some parents seeing red.
At a lower school parents’ meeting last Friday, some of the parents were quite vocal about their opposition to this change in curriculum. Some brought up the importance of the Romance languages to the history of art and music, others felt that Spanish was simply more useful for Americans.
“Mandarin has been offered at Ross since 1998,” Ms. Claeys said yesterday. “We’ve been closely examining our whole curriculum, and we’ve been getting some really good feedback.”
The decision for students to engage in 12 years of Mandarin study coincides with the school’s determination that “M-term” — a three-week intensive study that has included many trips abroad to exotic places — will offer China as its sole international choice this year, along with other studies at the school and trips to locations in the United States.
“The school started in Japan and China 20 years ago,” said Courtney Sale Ross, the school’s founder. “This is a way of honoring and celebrating our 20th anniversary.”
M-terms next year will again include ventures to other ports, Mrs. Ross said. “If a faculty member had a great idea this year to go to Cuba, that’s great, hold that idea,” she said. “Cuba will still be there next year.”
Both Ms. Claeys and Mrs. Ross were clear that Mandarin was a language that children needed to begin studying as soon as possible in elementary school, since “Mandarin takes significantly longer to learn,” Ms. Claeys said. “We want to give our students the highest levels of fluency possible.”
“Americans are monolinguistic,” Mrs. Ross said. “We are geographically handicapped. European schools require you to speak two languages in addition to your home language by the time of graduation.”
Why Chinese? “It’s not a secret that China’s economy is booming,” said Mrs. Ross. “It’s predicted that their economy will surpass ours in 10 years. And it’s many people’s opinion — not just mine, but the State Department, the leaders of this country — that students with a degree of fluency in Mandarin will possess a skill set that is highly valued.”
She was also quick to point out that it is not just about the future, but also about the past. “China is historically rich,” she said. “It’s not just the language, it’s the culture.”
Spanish will still be part of the schedule for the high school, and possibly the middle school. “It was a scheduling problem this year to keep Spanish class as part of the regular school day for the lower grades with this new initiative,” Mrs. Ross said, adding that parents who feel that they want their children to continue with Spanish are offered the opportunity, free of charge, before school begins, or an afternoon class for a fee.
Ms. Claeys said that while fluency is hoped for by graduation, each student would be viewed individually, so that the years they have spent studying Mandarin would be taken into account for the final exam. “We’re phasing it in in the upper school to see what fluency can be achieved,” she said.
“I Skyped last night with some of our Mainland Chinese boarders,” Mrs. Ross said. “I asked them what they would want for their U.S. colleagues going to China this year for M-term.”
“One lovely girl from Hong Chou said she would be interested in service work, since people view China as an economic power, but service work there is very important.” Mrs. Ross also said she hoped some of the Chinese students at Ross would consider going back to their homeland for M-term to help the American students fully enjoy their experience.
“My desire has always been to give these students grounding to be global citizens,” Mrs. Ross said. “The writing is on the wall — it’s going to be important in their lifetime to have a grasp of Mandarin Chinese.”
“They will be able to build bridges with other nations as a result,” she said.
As to the concerned parents, Mrs. Ross said, “I think it’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Most parents and faculty are really excited, and somehow it got twisted. I’m taking a stand on Chinese to create global citizens. It’s in keeping with the mission of the school.”