After a rewarding two-year encounter with Chinese language and culture, Holbrook Junior-Senior High School this fall is down to just one foreign language option, Spanish. But the choices could expand next school year.
Visiting teacher Yuan Xiu, who allowed students to call her by the nickname “Miss Apple,” departed in June. According to Superintendent Joseph Baeta, Yuan’s tenure was part of a cultural exchange that was not intended to launch a full Chinese curriculum. So this fall, the curriculum includes five levels of Spanish and no other foreign languages.
However, Baeta hopes to offer more languages, on a tight budget, by asking students to make their course selections early for fall 2013 from a menu that is expected to include Chinese, French, Latin, and Spanish. He said he will try to offer the languages that draw the most interest.
He plans to advertise in April for teachers, and the arrangement for the 2013-14 school year could mean some teachers would work part time, Baeta said.
Budget cuts and the demands of state achievement tests have led many schools to reduce language offerings, especially at the elementary and middle levels. Still, some districts are looking for ways to strengthen their foreign language instruction.
Supporters of a controversial project to explore merging the Avon and Holbrook schools have said a larger system might offer a wider variety of language courses.
Avon Middle-High School principal Sharon Hansen said she does not intend to take a position on regionalization, but that the number of languages a school offers frequently depends on its size.
Though smaller than Holbrook, Avon offers Spanish and French. The school offered Latin until about eight years ago, but stopped because of a lack of qualified applicants, not because of a budget crunch, she said.
“We’re looking to do a better job of what we’ve got,” Hansen said. She would like language instruction to start at a younger age, so Avon could graduate students who are fluent in their language of choice.
The district also works hard on cultural exchanges, she said. Although it doesn’t offer Chinese, it participates in a program through the Massachusetts International Academy in Marlborough in which students from China visit the Avon school.
The exchange goes both ways. During April vacation, six Avon students visited China, accompanied by a parent and five faculty members.
Yuan’s visit to Holbrook was part of the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, a public institution in China that promotes the language abroad.
Leslie Sepuka, a spokeswoman for the program, said in an e-mail that it is the largest visiting Mandarin teacher program in America and puts teachers through a rigorous selection process.
School districts accepted into the program pay the teacher’s salary, subsidized by a $13,000 annual stipend from Hanban, she said.
Teachers stay with host families and may continue for up to three years. Yuan, a 28-year-old English teacher, decided to leave after two; she missed family and friends and wanted to start a family of her own. She also planned to return to teaching English at Xiang Tan No. 1 Middle School in Hunan Province, using her experience here to enrich her work.
Last school year, Yuan taught language and culture to more than 150 Holbrook students. In her two years at the school, she took the teens to visit Boston’s Chinatown, cooked food for them to try, and led them in folk dancing, kite flying, and more.
“I think building a good relationship with your students is important,” she said.
In class, she allowed students to earn credits toward gifts from China, such as decorations, books, and games. The students also wrote poems and video-chatted with their teacher’s family and friends.
Principal Michelle McGlone said the cultural dialogue Yuan brought to the school was exciting, and she will miss them both.
Not only did the students learn new things — Yuan learned more about the United States. She traveled during school breaks to an array of destinations, including Chicago, Disney World, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York City, Niagara Falls, Missouri, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. She kayaked and leaf-peeped in New Hampshire, and visited colleges and universities.
Some of her trips she planned herself; others were part of the guest teacher program. “I prefer traveling to fancy clothes,” she said.
For the future, McGlone is looking into the possibility of working with a different organization to offer some Chinese instruction, bring Chinese students for a short stay, and give Holbrook students the opportunity to visit China over the summer.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at email@example.com.