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Innovative program wins Hyde Park charter school an invitation to D.C.

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  January 20, 2011 11:02 AM

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Three representatives from Hyde Park’s Boston Renaissance Charter Public School were among about 200 guests invited to Washington on Wednesday to hear Michelle Obama speak on the value of cultural exchange.

One of a flurry of events in the nation’s capital marking the first visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, the gathering at Howard University was an occasion to promote President Barack Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative,” which works to encourage more American students to study in China.

Boston Renaissance, which serves students from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, was invited because of its own innovative program for exposing young students to Chinese language and culture. In 2009, the school started a pilot Mandarin Chinese program for 84 pre-kindergarten students that has gone on to win federal grants and national recognition.

Speaking by phone from Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Roger Harris, superintendent and chief executive officer for the school, said the student population at Boston Renaissance is one that often doesn’t have access to this kind of program. Ninety-eight percent of students at the school are black or Latino, and about three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“In most foreign language programs, it’s for the students who are in the talented and gifted program, students who have shown through the years a proficiency,” he said. “But what we’ve learned in two years is … it doesn’t matter what the demographic is. By exposing kids to language and culture in the early years, all the stereotypes go out the window.”

Harris said that’s the program’s key element — reaching students while they’re still very young. Boston Renaissance’s program introduces Chinese language and culture to students as young as four. “Most second-language programs start in the seventh grade, but we thought that it made more sense if we want our kids to learn second languages to start as early as possible,” said Harris.

The program began with a $10,000 seed grant from the Harbus Foundation, an organization run by students at Harvard Business School. Then, last May, the US Department of Education awarded the school a $1.3 million Foreign Language Assistance Program grant. This allowed the program to expand from just one teacher to one part-time and three full-time teachers, all of whom are native Mandarin speakers, and to go from 84 pre-kindergarten students to around 400 students from pre-K up to sixth grade.

Administrators and members of the school's board of trustees have traveled to China twice in the past year, forming partnerships with Chinese educators. Eventually, Harris hopes to have guest teachers come from China to help expand the program. Boston Renaissance has also partnered with the nearby Rogers Middle School to extend the programming past grade six. This school year, Rogers has introduced its own pilot program in Chinese language and culture.

Recently, the Asia Society invited Boston Renaissance to be one of about 60 schools nationwide participating in the Confucius Classrooms Network, which recognizes “model Chinese language programs for the US,” according to the society’s website. The Asia Society is an international organization that works to build understanding and partnerships between the United States and Asia.

It was that membership that led to the invitation to participate in the event with Michelle Obama. Speaking between her appearances at Wednesday morning’s welcome ceremony for Jintao and a state dinner for the foreign leader that evening, the First Lady announced $2.25 million in private-sector funds to support the president’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” and shared her own feelings about the value of connecting across national borders.

“The First Lady commented today about how it’s in the best interest of both countries for American children and Chinese children to be able to understand each others’ cultures and blow the lid off stereotypes so that they can prosper culturally, educationally and economically, and I think that we just need to spend more time on that,” he said.

The morning’s program also included a panel discussion by American high school and college students who had studied in China, and Harris said he was impressed and invigorated by those students’ interest in deepening international understanding. “It was really refreshing to see so many young people, one, participating in a study-abroad program, but two, what excites me is the relationship that’s developing between China and the US,” Harris said. “We feel excited just to be part of it.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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