Utah is Dedicated to Creating a Global Workforce

An interview with Gregg Roberts, World Languages Specialist Utah State Office of Education, by Megan Conley

How did the Chinese language initiatives begin in Utah? What was the inspiration?

Utah is a small state, so for us, economic development and participation in the global community are vital. With this in mind, we realized that developing global citizens is a requirement for Utah students. We selected Mandarin Chinese, French, and Spanish because they are three really important international business languages.

Why Mandarin Chinese?

Then Gov. John M. Huntsman, who is fluent in Mandarin and now serves as the Ambassador of China, really wanted Utah to focus on economic development with China. To accomplish this, we realized that we need to create a workforce that is proficient in Mandarin Chinese. Three and a half years ago, I was hired by the Utah State Office of Education to lead world language programs into the twenty-first century. During my initial meeting with Gov. Huntsman, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “One of the very first charges I am giving you is to get Chinese language programs into our secondary and elementary schools as soon as possible.” We discussed effective ways we could bring Chinese into the Utah public school system, and he then put me in touch with State Supervisor Howard Stephenson (now Senator Howard Stephenson), who was the chairman of the education appropriations committee in Utah. We initiated the “Critical Languages Program,” in 2007 using state legislative funding designed to give schools small incentives to start Chinese programs at the secondary level. In the 2009/2010 school year, we will have 84 secondary schools (junior high school or high school) offering Mandarin Chinese in Utah- which is by far the highest percentage of any state in the nation. Considering we only have 220 secondary schools in the entire state, over one-third of our schools will be offering Mandarin Chinese classes. Isn’t that amazing? We’ll have over 6,000 secondary students studying Mandarin Chinese.

In Utah, we are taking a two-tiered approach to implementing Mandarin Chinese programs. We wanted to make sure that we have language programs in place at the secondary level immediately because those kids are there right now, but we also wanted to build long, sequential study in Mandarin Chinese through our elementary immersion programs. With this goal in mind, I contacted the iconic Dr. Myriam Met, a nationally recognized immersion expert and who has been instrumental in designing the structure of Utah’s Dual Immersion Programs.

Please tell us about Utah’s immersion program model and program design.

Dual immersion models exist in Chinese, French, and Spanish. Senator Howard Stephenson provided funding for the Utah Dual Immersion Pilot Program which is starting in eight elementary schools in five school districts in Utah this year. Last year we also received funds for a planning year, which is critical in terms of staff support, program design, teacher recruitment, and community support.

Our program design is a 50/50 dual immersion model in Mandarin Chinese and English offering a rich bilingual experience for young learners, especially at a development level when their minds are best able to acquire a second language. Each class has two teachers, a native English speaker and a native Mandarin Chinese speaker (or someone who has native Chinese proficiency). This allows us to double our numbers and create two cohorts. For example, students in Group A will be with their English teacher in the morning and their Chinese teacher in the afternoon. Group B will have the opposite schedule. Half of the instructional content is taught in English and the other half in Mandarin Chinese.

This year, eight elementary schools will be starting Mandarin immersion programs. Six will begin their immersion program in first grade, and two in Kindergarten. In total, we will have about 475 immersion students in the 2009/2010.

What is Utah’s long-term vision for program articulation? Will there be a pipeline in place for students to continue learning Mandarin?

Absolutely! Mandarin Chinese immersion programs in Utah are based on a K-12 immersion model. The elementary programs (K – 6th grade) will be 50/50 instruction, and then in junior high school (7th – 9th grade) there will be two Chinese class periods specifically designed for the immersion students; a language arts class and a content course. When our students continue on to high school (10th – 12th grade), they will take a class that is specially designed to improve their proficiency. We are also requesting that students start learning a third language at the high school level. We expect that our dual immersion students will take the Advanced Proficiency (AP) test when they enter 9th grade and that they will score anywhere from advanced-low to advanced-mid on the ACTFL proficiency scale.

Where do you find program support and resources?

Utah is very fortunate in that our State Superintendent, Larry K. Shumway, has encouraged a strong emphasis on our foreign language programs, and we’ve gotten lots of support as far as funding is concerned. Utah benefits from two amazing in-state resources; the Brigham Young Chinese Flagship Program and the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah. Despite these wonderful resources, we realize that there are a still some areas with shortages, one of which is Chinese literacy. In an effort to bridge some of those gaps, in March of 2009 we convened a literacy summit here in Utah to talk about early Chinese literacy for American students.

The whole premise of immersion is that you actually teach the language through the medium of the core curriculum, so you are teaching Mandarin Chinese for half a day, but still using the regular Utah core curriculum for content. As a result, we’ve found it necessary to develop our own resources and materials, including content maps, math maps, and more. Again, Dr. Myriam Met has been instrumental. We also partnered with the Oregon Flagship Program and their wonderful program at Woodstock Elementary School. We’ve been getting some insight from Dr. Madeline Spring, Director of the Chinese Flagship Program at Arizona State University. We’ve been reaching out, trying to form consortiums of other programs across the country. We’ve got to start somewhere and decided that the time is now.

How do you find teachers for all of your Mandarin Chinese programs?

In an effort to meet Utah’s growing need for Mandarin Chinese teachers, we are developing a short and long-term plan. In the near-term, we are recruiting from the local population of native Mandarin Chinese speakers currently living in Utah. Seven out of our eight immersion teachers are natives of Taiwan. Unfortunately, the number of native Chinese speakers currently residing in Utah isn’t enough to fill our classroom needs. As a secondary short-term solution, we’re utilizing the Hanban visiting guest teacher program, bringing teachers directly from the People’s Republic of China to teach in American classrooms. This year, Utah will host twenty-six Hanban guest teachers. Understandably, the Hanban program has challenges of its own. Sometimes the most difficult adjustment for guest teachers (from China) is relating to culture within the school or the United States. We are very fortunate to be able to rely on local resources such as Susan Gong, K-12 Coordinator at the BYU Flagship program, to provide teacher mentorship and Dr. Richard Chi from the University of Utah, who just finished conducting a week long workshop on Utah teaching standards. For the most part, the Hanban teachers perform extremely well in the foreign language programs at the secondary level. This will be our first year using Hanban teachers in our immersion programs.

Simultaneously, Utah is actively pursuing long-term solutions that will address the teacher shortage issue. Utah Governor’s Education Deputy, Christine Kearl, has been invaluable in setting up M.O.U.’s with teacher exchange programs in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. We are also working with Brigham Young University as they develop a Mandarin credentialing program for teachers.
We are trying to recruit native or near native speakers who currently reside in Utah to enter the pipeline and become credentialed Mandarin teachers in our programs. Your program is only as good as your teachers, and teacher shortages in immersion education, especially as we continue to grow, is always going to be an issue, so we really need to cultivate some permanent teachers of our own. In the meantime, we are looking overseas for the short-term solution.

Have you been successful in engaging the community and school constituencies? How are they involved?

The Dual immersion Pilot Program requires schools to apply for these grants, meaning interested districts self-identify as being committed to incorporating a Chinese program into their school. The next step was for me to host a presentation to the school community council, which included both the community and teachers to talk about how the program would affect their school. All of our immersion programs exist as a strand, which means that they run side-by-side with traditional instruction. Hosting these presentations were an important mechanism to inform and educate school communities on how to successfully support an immersion strand within their current school structure. As for the parent community, all of our programs in Utah are all about parental choice- each parent has the option to select immersion education or traditional education. Much like the school community council, I also hosted presentations for the parent community, giving them an opportunity to learn about the program, ask questions, and helping them to understand what the expectation levels are for students of Mandarin Chinese. Currently, we have waiting lists at all eight immersion programs, and there has been excitement in the community surrounding these initiatives. We’ve also offered a series of professional development workshops for school administrators. This past summer we hosted the first Annual Utah Dual Immersion Institute (AUDII) where we had professional development not only for our teachers but also for our principals. These professional development and networking programs are in place so that educators can learn from one another and share best practices.

What struggles and/or challenges do you see in the road ahead?

I have to be honest with you; it’s definitely been a struggle to get materials from other programs which is why we’ve had to create a lot of materials on our own. Programs will tell you what they are doing, but when you really want to see the hard stuff, it’s difficult to get your hands on it. Another challenge we are constantly faced with is manpower. It’s great to have teachers and curriculum, but you also need support personnel. You need those instructional specialists and district coordinators. You need support staff to be able to take the program to the next level.

The truth is, we have a great model on paper and now we start with the implementation. Our program just started last week. There are still a lot of challenges ahead of us. We tried to create the best model we could using expertise from people like Dr. Myriam Met. I don’t want anybody to get the idea that we are so far ahead of them because we’re really not. We’re just taking what other people are doing and trying to bring that together and to tweak and tool it so that it will work in Utah. We really appreciate all of the efforts of organizations like CAIS Institute, Woodstock Elementary School, and the Minnesota programs- they are all excellent resources. There’s amazing stuff out there and we are looking to other programs for inspiration to create a package that really meets the needs of Utah students.

Any words of wisdom for other states that are considering starting Mandarin programs?

Roll up your sleeves and jump in! The time for building Mandarin Chinese programs is now and everyone has to start somewhere. My advice is to get started!