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Mandarin Chinese classes gaining popularity at high school

RHS Mandarin teacher Maureen Wu goes through vocabulary with her Mandarin 3 students.2 / 2

It's got a long way to go before it dethrones Spanish, but Mandarin Chinese is quickly gaining popularity in the hallways at Rosemount High School.

The school added a third level of the language last year, and it's prepared to add a fourth level next fall as a College in Schools class that will earn students college credit.

Mandarin has been spreading up through the grade levels since 2007, when Independent School District 196 transformed Diamond Path Elementary School into a magnet school with a focus on international studies. Students at Diamond Path have the option of studying Chinese or Spanish, and as those students have progressed through the grade levels, the language option has come with them, spreading first to Rosemount Middle School and now to RHS.

Mandarin has also spread to Scott Highlands Middle School and Eastview High School, the other most common destinations for Diamond Path students.

"These students that go through the magnet program at Diamond Path, we're seeing the end result now," said RHS administrator Pete Roback. "It's great for these kids to start way back at a young age at elementary school that there is this path all the way through."

RHS tried earlier this year to offer distance-learning Mandarin classes with Eagan High School, but Roback said the language class presents challenges the school couldn't overcome with the technology it currently has available for distance learning.

This year RHS has about a dozen students in its introductory Mandarin program, about 60 in Mandarin 2 and five in Mandarin 3.

Those numbers are still small compared to Spanish, which Roback said is the "big beast" of world languages at RHS. But the program is still growing.

Maureen Wu, who teaches Mandarin at both RHS and Rosemount Middle School, said most of her students get their start in the language somewhere other than Diamond Path. Students currently can take Mandarin 1 at RMS and at RHS, though the district has discontinued support for the entry-level class at the high school.

On a recent Monday, Wu ran through vocabulary lessons with students in her Mandarin 3 class. Student watched a Chinese music video on YouTube and translated the lyrics. They'll have to work in groups to recite one of the song's several tongue-twisters in front of the class. They also worked with flash cards of Chinese symbols, using hand gestures to help cement meanings in their minds.

Wu is particularly excited for the addition of the CIS Mandarin 4 class next year. RHS will work with the University of Minnesota to develop curriculum for the class, and students earn college credit for taking it. Wu believes only one other high school in Minnesota offers CIS Mandarin.

Wu sees enthusiasm for the class among students and parents, and she believes learning the language will be increasingly important as China takes on a more prominent role in the world.

"I think parents more and more are wanting this for their kids," Wu said. "Chinese is going to become extremely valuable for their students to learn, in my opinion. I'm biased."