Bard, one of four new in-district high schools operated in partnership with Newark Public Schools, offers ninth graders three different language classes in their fall semester. The school first opened in September 2011 with start-up funding from a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO and President Mark Zuckerberg to the city of Newark.
The students rotate between five week classes in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English, studying the grammar of each, before deciding to pursue either Chinese or Spanish for the following three years.
By January of this year, all 85 ninth grade students will have completed five weeks of Mandarin Chinese. An estimated 40 to 60 students will pursue Chinese beyond the five week period.
Dumaine Williams, the dean of students, said the language program is still growing and the school hopes to be teaching classes in Latin by 2013.
"The Chinese language program at the Bard High School Early College Newark encourages students to get excited about learning," said Williams. "It gets them to truly embrace a liberal arts education and provides students with the unique opportunity to expand their knowledge and perspective of world languages and cultures."
The class is taught by John Weinstein, who also serves as an NPS Master Teacher and Dean of Early College. Weinstein founded the first Chinese language program in 2001 at Bard High School Early College Manhattan.
"Most Chinese language classes have many students of Chinese heritage," said Weinstein, who is the first non-native Chinese speaker to serve as a scoring leader for the Advanced Placement Chinese Language and Culture Exam. "It's extremely rare to have these proportions of African American and Latino students taking Chinese. We believe that Chinese is for everyone, and everyone at Bard has the opportunity to become more familiar with the language, even if they don't pursue it beyond ninth grade."
Weinstein's interest in the Chinese language was sparked at age six and he has been studying the language consistently for the past 22 years. He received his undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard and his master's degree as well as his doctorate in Chinese Literature from Columbia University. During his studies, Weinstein has visited Taiwan, Harbin, Beijing and Shanghai, China.
A typical day in Weinstein's Intro to Language class consists of a new Chinese character being drawn on a SMART board, an interactive projected chalkboard connected to a computer. The students will practice drawing the character and familiarizing themselves with the pronunciation, such as "Ye," which means "also."
Weinstein gets the class started by going over some already familiar sentences in Chinese, such as "Wo Shi Xue Sheng," which means, "I am a student."
The students will then learn how to incorporate the new word into the sentence, "Wo Ye Shi Xue Sheng," or "I am also a student."
The ninth graders will practice the words together before splitting up into partners to practice conversations together.
"Writing the symbols is hard," said 14 year old Sumiyah Bethea, as she wrote the words on the SMART board. "I do like to learn how to write it and then speak it, but I may move to a different language so I can speak more than one."
Weinstein says the program is about learning Chinese, but also about empowering the students to feel good about their education and to get them to show people they can do things no one else thought they could.
Now that the program is up and running, Weinstein is thinking of new ways to expose students to Chinese culture. Bard has applied for a $10,000 Confucius Grant from China that would give them the opportunity to purchase textbooks and hire speakers as well as cultural performers.
"I also want to get the parents involved," said Weinstein. "I would like to teach a parent presentation to show parents that they can help their children, even if they don't know the language, and make this program a real community effort."
On February 9, Bard students, teachers, parents and faculty held a Chinese New Year Celebration to provide students with insight into the language they have been studying and celebrate the "Year of the Dragon," the luckiest year in the Chinese Zodiac.
Student artwork depicting each animal of the Chinese Zodiac lined the hallway as students found their birth year and signed their name below their animal. Chinese candy was presented as a gift to students as part of the New Year tradition.
Weinstein presented the traditions of the Chinese New Year as well as a short lesson in Mandarin before dinner was served. Dishes included fish, chicken, pork, rice and vegetables.
Bard integrates high school and the first two years of college within the framework of an urban public high school, offering its students access to intellectually-stimulating, academically-rigorous college courses taught by college-level faculty who are dedicated to teaching young scholars.
Students at BHSEC in Newark will earn both a New Jersey high school diploma and a Bard College Associate in Arts degree and 60 college credits, at no cost, helping them bridge the gap to higher education. Nearly all BHSEC graduates go on to complete four-year degrees at top colleges and universities.