Education

High school Chinese language courses are casualty of cuts to University of Iowa

Confucius Institute has taught Chinese in Iowa City high schools since 2016

Confucius Institute Curriculum Coordinator Xi Ma and visiting teachers from Shanghai Yue Liu and Binxin Li (foreground, left to right) pose with North Central Junior High students during a Chinese culture presentation in May 2014. (Courtesy of Confucius Institute)
Confucius Institute Curriculum Coordinator Xi Ma and visiting teachers from Shanghai Yue Liu and Binxin Li (foreground, left to right) pose with North Central Junior High students during a Chinese culture presentation in May 2014. (Courtesy of Confucius Institute)

IOWA CITY — State budget cuts the University of Iowa says are causing it to close some university centers could mean the end of Chinese language courses at Iowa City high schools.

The Confucius Institute — which offers Chinese language classes at West High, City High and Liberty High — is set to shutter in July 2019.

It’s one of seven centers the UI intends to close in response to funding cuts. The university hopes the closures, along with funding reductions to three other centers, will save $3.5 million.

“It’s a very unfortunate decision that was made, considering this is a very good opportunity for high school students,” said Xi Ma, the Confucius Institute’s curriculum coordinator. “ ... Taking classes in high school or the early years in college equips them with the knowledge and skill that’s required to better serve people of various languages and cultural backgrounds.”

The institute has provided courses in Mandarin Chinese at West High School and City High School in Iowa City since the 2016-2017 school year, and it will begin offering them at Liberty High School this fall, said Diane Schumacher, the director of curriculum for the Iowa City school district.

The institute also has held cultural presentations at district elementary and junior high schools.

Four levels of Chinese language classes were available to high school students last school year, Schumacher said, and students received college credit through a dual enrollment program. Class sizes ranged from three to 10 students.

“That’s certainly not enough kids that we would be able to afford to hire a teacher and have a teacher there to teach for us,” Schumacher said, noting the classes cost the district $250 per student. “ ... That was something the Confucius Institute was able to do, to help kids access this language.” But with the budget cuts, “we’re anticipating that could mean changes to what we’re able to offer.”

Without the institute’s support, the district expects Chinese language courses on its high school campuses will be discontinued. On campus, students will have access only to Spanish and French language courses.

On-site high school classes in German were recently cut due to budget cuts as well, Schumacher said.

Some Iowa City high school students travel to the UI for additional language classes.

“It won’t be as convenient for them, it’s harder when it’s at the university,” Schumacher said. “It’s a little bit easier to say, ‘I’m going to go down the hall and take this course.’”

A West High Chinese language student, 17-year-old Diego Rivera, said he hopes students will seek Chinese courses out at the UI. He said he chose to study the language after finishing his school’s Spanish courses.

“It’s Chinese, it’s very, very hard,” Rivera said. “But definitely, if you’re willing to put in the time for it, it’s well worth it — you just learned one of the most spoken languages in the entire world.”

Rivera said he wanted to learn Chinese because of his interest in international business — knowing Chinese language in that sphere, he said, “is an essential.”

Ma said the Confucius Institute still is searching for a way to continue its programming — which includes community classes, cultural festivals and professional trainings — after the institute itself closes.

“I hope that there’s a way to transfer the (high school) classes to other places, to keep those classes sustainable,” she said. “I hope we find a way to do that, but I’m not sure.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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