GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - As China continues to grow on an economic scale, many American schools are trying to prepare their students academically to compete and do business with the Chinese.
That starts with learning the language.
Since it is the Chinese New Year today, Monday, January 23, we decided to look at how some West Michigan K-12 schools are preparing their students.
A local elementary school and a few high schools have put Chinese programs in place in the last five years. School leaders say they've taken off and grown immensely.
It's the year of the dragon, and another year of growth for the Chinese Immersion Program at Meadow Brook Elementary School in the Forest Hills School District.
"One way we measure the success of the program is by our waiting list," said Tim Shaw, principal at Meadow Brook Elementary.
There's enough interest that Shaw has been able to add a grade level each year. Now it's up to 4th grade, giving 50 kids in each grade a more diversified school day.
His other measure of success is test scores.
"We see not only are they making wonderful progress on their Chinese language skills and listening, but they're also on par with their counterparts in traditional school as far as reading and writing and math."
"Our hope is by the time these students are in high school, they have a chance to get a third language," said Shaw.
So far, the only area high school to offer four full years of Chinese language is Rockford High School.
Jeff Hayes started the program five years ago with just 17 students. Now, he has 100 students interpreting foreign characters, everyday.
"Each year there's something new and exciting. We break ground on a new aspect of making this program stronger," said Hayes.
For the first time last fall, they brought in students from a partner school in China; Hayes has also taken his students to Shanghai.
But for him, success is judged by what seniors like Josh Walbogen and Rachel Kim do with the language.
"We have students who are starting out in their second or third year Chinese classes in college."
Kim is heading to the University of Oregon's Flagship Chinese Program next fall.
"I'm going to be a step ahead of people who haven't been able to take Chinese in high school," she said.
"You're going to be able to converse with these people who are becoming such a big power. It's going to be the biggest difference between me getting a job and not getting a job," said Waldbogen.
It's one more way to prepare students in West Michigan for the global economy, which is why Hayes and Shaw are sharing their knowledge with schools trying to catch up to the Dragon.
"I've gotten tons and tons of calls from many other districts." Hayes.
"There's an itch in the market. I'm fielding calls from people in Chicago, Minnesota," said Shaw.
Rockford Superintendent Mike Shibler said he wants to add a Chinese Immersion program in his district but said it's impossible to do that right now with budget cuts.
The principal of Rogers High School in Wyoming said the same.
Grand Haven Christian School recently started offering after school classes in Chinese.
Nancy Romig, Assistant Director of the Confucius Institute at MSU, said much of the funding for these immersion classes comes from federal grants, but this year, the government cut all funding to the grants.
She said that will have a big impact on local districts trying to build programs.
Shaw said Forest Hills has some separate grant money coming in through the help of parents.