Georgia School District Hopes Mandatory Mandarin Classes Can Boost Graduation Rate

A Georgia county looks to the world's second-largest economy to fix its education system

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Macon, Georgia, nestled in the heart of the Peach State, is located a world away from China. But now, the 7,000 miles that separate Macon and Beijing are being nullified thanks to a new initiative by the Georgia town’s school district, which is trying to get its ailing public-school system in order: making Chinese language classes mandatory.

Half of the district’s 25,000 students don’t graduate, CBS reported. The city, which boasts a long legacy of education as home to the world’s oldest women’s college, Wesleyan College, has implemented the “Macon Miracle” strategic plan to fix its education system. Along with more math and science classes, all students are required to take Mandarin classes to empower local students “to compete in a 21st century, multi-ethnic economy,” the county’s school superintendent Romain Dallemand told CBS.

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Starting with the youngest children, Dallemand is gradually extending the program and said he hoped to have Chinese language classes at every school level within three years, he told NPR. By 2050, he’s convinced, the students “will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.” Currently, third-graders are learning the world’s most-spoken language, taught by native Mandarin speakers sent to the middle of Georgia by the Chinese government.

Last year, President Obama’s daughter Sasha, just nine years old at the time, practiced her Chinese language skills when China’s President Hu Jintao visited Washington. Former Republican presidential candidate and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., is fluent in Chinese as was the U.S. 31st President Herbert Hoover, who would use the language to speak in confidence with his wife.

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Chinese ranks third after English and Spanish as language most used in American homes, according to a 2007 census. Still, only 2.5 million people speak Chinese at home, mostly in California and New York, peripheral compared to 34.5 million who have their dinner conversations in Spanish. But Mandarin is unarguably the most-spoken language in the world, with 845 million native speakers according to the 2009 Ethnologue. As of this year, the number is thought to have surpassed 1 billion.

But Macon students will likely need to travel a bit in order to utilize their newly-acquired language skills. In a 2010 census of then Macon County (which has since merged with Bibb County), only eight out of a population of almost 15,000 said they were of Chinese origin.

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