One thing is almost certain: It's not going to be easy in the coming decades.
That's one reason that Kirchner next year will enroll Eleanor in East Link Academy, a public charter school in Greenville where all students will be taught in two languages: English and Mandarin Chinese.
"I want to give the opportunity to my daughter to be bilingual," Kirchner said.
East Link, opening in August 2018 on Rutherford Road, will give young people a leg up in the global economy, organizers said. Plus, research has shown that students who intensively study foreign languages excel in other academic subjects.
With classes from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade, East Link students will study the typical subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies.
"They will learn all the same material that a child would learn in a normal public school," Kirchner said.
But they'll spend 50 percent of their day learning in English and the other 50 percent learning in Mandarin.
"This is true immersion in Mandarin," said Traci Bryant-Riches, project manager of East Link Academy. "This is where the kids spent at least half of their day speaking and listening in Mandarin."
As a public charter school, East Link will be open to all students for free, although the pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds is not funded by public dollars and therefore will require a fee.
Students are not required to have had any experience with Mandarin before enrolling.
"You don't have to know a thing," Bryant-Riches said. "All you have to do is show up."
Unique in the Upstate
A Chinese language immersion academy is unique in the Upstate, although East Link is patterned after a similar school, East Point Academy, in West Columbia.
In addition, another Mandarin-focused school, East Light Academy, is in the planning stages in Charleston.
The emphasis of the schools is on Mandarin because it's the second most-widely spoken language in the world, after English.
In less than a dozen years, the economic powerhouse of China is expected overtake the U.S. in terms of gross domestic product.
Speaking Mandarin has become a ticket to success for students applying to college and future executives hoping to lead global operations.
"The opportunities for American children who are fluent in Mandarin are unbelievable," Bryant-Riches said.
In addition, studying a challenging language such as Mandarin appears to boost a student's overall academic performance, Bryant-Riches said.
"What you find is that children who are learning to be bilingual do better academically than kids who are monolingual," she said.
Chinese language immersion academies tend to attract some Asian-American students, but the student body will likely be predominantly non-Asian, Bryant-Riches said.
School organizers have hired Dana Hutto, assistant principal of West Columbia's East Point Academy, to serve as principal of Greenville's East Link Academy. They're recruiting native Mandarin-speaking teachers through a partnership with Presbyterian College's Confucius Institute.
They also recently leased the Pomeroy Building at 3550 Rutherford Road. With contracts signed for that 80,000-square-foot space, East Link is set to become a reality in less than a year.
Kirchner is not only the parent of a future East Link student. She's also chairwoman of the new school's board.
As a mechanical engineer with GE, Kirchner has a window onto the global economy. What she sees is a competitive world where students from other countries learn several languages while many in the United States study only English.
"I work with a lot other engineers from around the world," she said. "Most people outside of the U.S. speak multiple languages."
Mandarin, spoken by more than a billion people worldwide, is set to become an even more valuable acquisition for young Americans as China continues its global ascendancy.
"As more and more Chinese enter the international market Mandarin is going to be all the more useful for young people," Kirchner said.
Not that it's an easy language for students to learn. It's considered a Level 5 language in difficulty, said Bryant-Riches. French and Spanish, by contrast, are Level 2 languages.
That's why, with Mandarin, an immersive approach is better than a few semesters of study.
"You're not going to learn Mandarin by going to a class for an hour a day, as in other foreign languages," Bryant-Riches said. "Mandarin is as hard as it gets."
Young Americans are behind the curve in studying foreign languages, unlike their Chinese counterparts, Bryant-Riches said.
"The number of children who learn English in China is in the millions," she said. "The number of children in America who learn Mandarin are in the thousands."
Opening and Growing
At East Link, students in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade will spend as much as 75 percent of their class time being taught in Mandarin.
Beginning in second grade, Mandarin instruction is reduced to 50 percent of class time.
"Children will come out of this school completely fluent in Mandarin," Bryant-Riches said.
Plans call for East Link to open with as many as 400 students. The school will add a grade level every year up to the eighth grade.
"We'll add about a hundred students every year," said Bryant-Riches, who formerly worked at the state charter school district in new school development.
In a few years, the school will combine pre-kindergarten, elementary and middle schools under one roof.
East Link will expand education opportunity for Greenville's young people, said Taylor Fulcher, spokeswoman for the S.C. Public Charter School District.
"Families in South Carolina are desperate for high-quality school options that prepare students for a global economy, and Chinese immersion is an increasingly popular choice," Fulcher said.
The school was approved in part based on the demand for and performance of Columbia's East Point Academy, Fulcher said.
Several dozen parents already have expressed interest in enrolling their children in East Link, even before recruitment efforts have begun in earnest, Kirchner said.
"We're confident that there is sufficient interest," she said.
South Carolina's charter schools accept students through a lottery system. If fewer than 400 children enroll in East Link, all of the students are accepted. If enrollment exceeds 400, the lottery is used.
One way that parents can bypass the lottery altogether is by playing a role on the planning committee, helping to recruit students and advance the project.
"That is an avenue for parents who want to have a secured spot," Bryant-Riches said.
One concern for East Link organizers is whether students will be able to continue their Mandarin studies beyond the school. Bryant-Riches said East Link could look to a charter high school in Greenville to help students continue their work in Mandarin.
After several years of Mandarin immersion at East Link, students won't need intensive classes, though they could benefit from some opportunities to exercise their language skills in high school.
As East Link begins to reach out to the public, some parents may initially be skeptical of a language immersion academy, although the experience of West Columbia's East Point Academy suggests that as the reputation of the school grows, parents and students will embrace the school.
"It's something new and out of the box," Bryant-Riches said. "It's not traditional. Some parents say, 'Wow, that's an awesome opportunity.' Others are uncomfortable to send their children to an immersion school. So you have to sell your school at the beginning. But five years from now, we won't have to."
For more information or to enroll a child in the East Link Academy lottery, see the website: eastlinkacademy.org.
Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com
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