Fate of popular Chinese language program uncertain at Topsham high school

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TOPSHAM — The future of Mt. Ararat High School’s fledgling Chinese language program is uncertain, despite its success attracting and engaging students.

Wei Wu, who came here from China 2 1/2 years ago to be the school’s Chinese language and culture teacher, is required by law to return home at the end of this school year.

Whether she will be replaced and the program will continue will depend on the upcoming school budget.

Wei arrived in Topsham in August 2008. Then 26, it was her first time in this country, although she had taught English in Beijing. Prior to that she lived in Jilin, a province in the northeastern part of China.

Wei said last week that she had difficulty her first year understanding English, but that her grasp of the language has since improved significantly.

“This program is very helpful to the students, because they have the teacher from the native-speaking country,” Wei said, explaining that her students have learned a lot not just about the language, but about her country’s culture.

And with Wei immersed in the English language and American culture, the education has been mutual.

“This program is very valuable to myself and to the students,” she said.

The school offered Chinese I in 2008-2009, when Wei taught five sections to 61 students. The next year saw two sections each of Chinese I and II, with 63 students. This year Wei has 71 students in the program, which now includes Chinese III and stretches to eighth grade.

“We’re very proud because we have the largest Chinese program in the state … in terms of number of students that it’s serving,” Assistant Principal Josh Ottow said.

He also noted that Mt. Ararat High is the only school in Maine that has had the same returning guest teacher for three years. Wei said she has decided to come back the past two years because the school has taken good care of her, and because she enjoys her students.

Wei was one of 136 teachers placed in 32 states by the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, a collaboration between the College Board and Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International.

Those groups also provided funding, Ottow said.

“However, it still comes at a cost to the schools,” he said. “And so, to help cover those costs, we’ve partnered with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, and they have helped us financially to cover the extra costs associated with this program.”

Wei’s time with the school has cost School Administrative District 75 nothing, Ottow said. But that may very well have to change for the Chinese program to continue next year.

Mt. Ararat High School is in its final year of the Ho foundation grant, so sustainability of the guest teacher program depends on Chinese language and culture becoming a permanent part of the curriculum, Ottow said.

That decision is up to the district’s finance committee, and then its School Board, as SAD 75 maps out its fiscal 2012 budget.

Given the poor economic climate, Ottow acknowledged, “it’s a tough time to be asking for a new (teaching) position.”

Sharing a teacher with other schools or offering classes online are possibilities, Ottow said. But he noted that “it’s been shown quite regularly at other schools that when you don’t have a teacher at your school teaching students in a desk, in a classroom, the participation is not very high.”

Ottow said that under the visa requirements for the program, Wei has been able to work in the U.S. for three years, but must return to China to work for the next two before becoming eligible to return to the U.S.

“Which is too bad,” he said, “because we don’t want to see her go back to China.”

Wei is trying to find a way to stay here another year, but getting around the visa requirement is difficult, she said.

“We see that speaking Chinese is a very important 21st century skill,” Ottow said. “And we also see the ability to understand Chinese culture, and … in a larger sense to communicate with China, is a very important thing for our students in this century.”

The educational momentum has built over the past three years, to the point that many Mt. Ararat students are conversant in Chinese, something that was unheard of four years ago, Ottow explained.

“We’re very proud of that,” he said. “So we don’t want to see that go away.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

Sidebar Elements


Josh Ottow, left, an assistant principal at Mt. Ararat High School, and Wei Wu, who has taught a successful Chinese language and culture program at the school since 2008, want to see that program continue beyond this year. Wei, a native of China, points to her home province of Jilin.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.