ROCK HILL — Even though school had been in for several weeks, it took a couple tries before the roomful of Richmond Drive Elementary fourth-graders felt comfortable re-introducing themselves to each other.
For them, the greetings sounded a bit unfamiliar.
Louder please, instructor Su Lihua told a shy girl.
Wǒ jiào, Piper, the student said half confidently, giggling and blushing as she introduced herself in Chinese.
Very good, Su Lihua responded.
It was the first lesson in the schools new Chinese language and culture course, which Richmond Drive added along with two other Rock Hill schools, Ebinport Elementary and Sullivan Middle schools.
As many predict Americas economic future hinges in part on building relationships with China, educators hope to give students a head start. More schools are adding Chinese language and culture lessons, citing the need to prepare students to engage with the worlds most populous nation.
One point five billion people on the planet speak Chinese, Richmond Drive Principal Patrick Maness said. The economies of the U.S. and China are intertwined at this point. Its going to be almost imperative that our kids are prepared to interact with the Chinese language to be ahead of the curve.
Some schools, including Nation Ford High, Fort Mill High, York Preparatory Academy and Westminster Catawba Christian School, offer virtual Chinese courses for students who are interested.
Rock Hill, Northwestern and South Pointe High are looking to add courses.
With help from the Chinese Culture and Exchange center in Spartanburg, Richmond Drive, Ebinport and Sullivan each hired a teacher from China.
The program is a natural fit, the principals said. Richmond Drive and Ebinport are schools of choice for their focus on language immersion. Any student in the district can apply to enroll. While the schools primary foreign language is Spanish, every student now takes Mandarin Chinese once a week.
Sullivan is a school of choice offering the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, which incorporates foreign language courses.
Since many Sullivan students come from Richmond Drive and Ebinport, the principals said, they could finish middle school understanding and speaking the language.
Its such a difficult language, the longer theyre exposed to it, the better, Sullivan Principal Michael Waiksnis said. Its another opportunity for students that will hopefully impact their careers down the road.
Its kind of the culmination of a dream, Ebinport Principal Shane Goodwin said. Weve all thought about languages and where do we move from here From just simply an opportunity perspective for our kids, we want to make sure that they stay on the cutting edge and that they can compete.
At 26, Su Lihua is living her childhood dream.
Before coming to Rock Hill, she taught in China and Thailand.
I want to be a teacher for my whole career, she said. That was my dream when I was young. I realize it is a dream for normal people.
At Richmond Drive, she teaches 25 classes a week, mixing culture lessons with language. For the first lesson, the children got acquainted with the class. They talked about Chinese food, and Su Lihua explained the rules and reward system for participation and good behavior. Over time, English will be spoken less and less.
They were very excited, she said.
Huaiying Kang, executive director of the Chinese Culture and Education Center in Spartanburg, said more schools are expressing interest in connecting with China.
Over the summer, Kang took 81 American educators including 45 from Rock Hill to China to teach English and learn about the school system. They taught at schools in Beijing and Shi Jia Zhuang in the Hebei province of northeast China.
For Maness, the trip made the need to add Chinese more apparent.
It is more clear to me than its ever been, he said. The amount of growth you see there is literally construction everywhere. Its high rise after high rise that you see going up.
Since Chinese classes started last month, at Richmond Drive, Lisa Cox said her two children Scout, a third-grader, and Dennis, a fifth-grader, havent stopped talking about the lessons.
In addition to Spanish, theyre throwing in Chinese; its great because these kids are like sponges, she said. Theyre just making so many connections.
At Sullivan, Chinese teacher Ho Mei Zhang asked her students what aspects of Chinese culture they were curious about. She then develop lessons to met their curiosity.
For lessons on Tai Chi, Hong Mei Zhang guided students as they practiced the art.
It was very relaxing, eighth-grader Jasmine Schmidt said. Learning the language, especially the written Chinese characters, is difficult, but its fun, she said.
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072