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When a visitor enters one classroom at Hilton Head Island Elementary School, 26 first-graders turn toward the door and shout their welcome.
That's "hello" in Mandarin.
The students solve math problems in the language and follow basic classroom commands. They've learned about Chinese culture and dutifully work to write the language's intricate characters.
The class learns mostly in Mandarin as part of an immersion program the Beaufort County School District began in 2010. More than 80 first- and second-graders at Hilton Head Elementary and Broad River Elementary schools participate.
But the grant that funds them -- the Foreign Language Assistance Program, which provided $1.3 million over five years -- could be cut from the federal budget this year. Those grants would have run through 2015, but funding for the program has been eliminated by the House of Representatives. The legislation has not passed the Senate.That means the district would have to find the money for its programs elsewhere, reduce their scope or end them altogether.
The grant has paid for supplies that make teaching Chinese possible -- books, curriculum material, software and iPod Touches. It also pays most of the salaries of two teachers, one at each school, who are from China, said district instructional services chief Sean Alford.
"It would definitely mean less resources, which will hurt a lot because we don't have materials readily available for us in Chinese," Broad River principal Constance Goodwine-Lewis said.
Alford said the grant was never meant to provide long-term funding. The district had been charged by the school board with adding foreign language opportunities at no additional cost, Alford said. With the tight economy, grants made that happen.
"We would love to have it for five years, but it has definitely done what it was intended to do, and that's spark our community's support for a language," Alford said.
Hilton Head Elementary assistant principal Sarah Owen, who also coordinates the district's English as a Second Language program, and Goodwine-Lewis said the parents at their schools support the program. They take their children to before- and after-school activities to learn about Chinese culture, get involved in the classroom and help their children learn a language that's foreign to them, as well.
At Broad River, the parents have drafted letters to Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham asking for their support in continuing the grants. Goodwine-Lewis said the students also wrote letters and created a video in which they talked about how much they enjoyed the program and hoped it would be funded. Those will also be sent to the senators.
Amy Vinson, Broad River PTO vice president, started an online petition at Change.org to try to persuade lawmakers to keep the money in the budget. It had been signed by 89 people as of Monday.
Vinson said her 7-year-old daughter, Lacey Miller, counts in Chinese as she's doing her math homework and speaks the language at home frequently, Vinson said.
"She was really upset" to hear the program might be cut, Vinson said. "I told her we'll have to see what (the senators) say, but you just try your best and hope they'll hear you."
District officials say they're also lobbying the senators.
"It's not looking good, is what we keep hearing," Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said. District officials say they will try to keep the program even if the grant disappears. In fact, they'd like to expand it, possibly by seeking other grants.
The goal is for Chinese classes to be added at every level so the students can continue their studies. In third through eighth grade, students would be taught half in English and half in Chinese. By high school, they could be taking courses in Chinese literature and more.
"This is not an opportunity that a lot of these students would have otherwise," Goodwine-Lewis said of the elementary school students. "Truly this is an opportunity for these children."
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.
- Project Climb, the district's Mandarin Chinese Immersion program
- Amy Vinson's online petition to DeMint and Graham
- Some Beaufort County first-graders learn in English and Mandarin; Jan. 17, 2011
- Chinese immersion at Beaufort County elementary schools hits sang; Oct. 4, 2010
- Area students my get chance to learn Chinese; May 9, 2010