A visit to Thomas Jefferson High School in northwest Dallas reflects its ties to a country more than 11,000 miles away. The schoolâs âChinese wingâ is adorned with pictures that depict Chinese culture and history, while hundreds of students take classes to speak and write Mandarin Chinese.
The school also has an exchange program that sent three students to the Hainan Overseas School in China in summer 2011 and 10 students this summer. The goal is to send even more students next summer.
But why is a Texas school thatâs about 95 percent Hispanic so focused on the Chinese?
Eddie Conger, a former principal at Thomas Jefferson who began the program, provides an answer. âMany of our students already speak two languages. To be able to speak a third language, your future is unlimited,â he said.
Thomas Jefferson, where more than 400 students are enrolled in Chinese classes, joins a growing number of American schools offering Chinese language and culture programs.
Increased participation in U.S. high schools is reflected in the number of students taking the Advanced Placement Chinese Language and Culture exam â" from 1,056 in 2007 to 4,126 in 2011, according to the College Board, which administers the exam.
Last month, 26 students, four teachers and a director from the Hainan school visited Thomas Jefferson. The Hainan school is in Haikou City on an island surrounded by the China Sea at the southern tip of China.
At a celebratory event held to honor the exchange program participants, some students said they have built strong friendships that stretch around the world.
âThe experience that we had in China was absolutely amazing,â said Sergio Carrillo, who opened his remarks in Chinese. âWe learned so much, and we had a terrific time experiencing the Chinese culture.â
Students at the event were asked about differences between the two schools. One Thomas Jefferson student noted that kung fu is not offered in his school, and another T.J. student added that neither is bamboo dancing, to the laughter of those in attendance.
Chinese student Liu Ziyin was giddy with the prospect of coming back to Thomas Jefferson for another visit. âIâm so excited right now,â she said. âI just went to the English class. It was wonderful.â
There is hope that more students will be able to make the trip to China next summer, said Conger, who is Dallas ISDâs executive director over Thomas Jefferson and the middle and elementary schools that feed into it. He said the number who will be able to travel to China will depend on donations and sponsorships. Costs can run about $3,000 per student.
Conger is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a big believer that U.S. students have to be able to compete in a global economy.
âI would love for the district to be able to expand this program,â Conger said. âWhat we hope to do, dream to do, if we have the resources, is to start Chinese at the elementary school through middle school, so by high school the students are even more advanced in the Chinese language.â
Several other Dallas ISD schools offer Asian studies, including J.L. Long Middle School, Woodrow Wilson High School and Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. In March, two principals, a teacher and five students from the Hainan school spent time at the campuses and at T.J.
Hainan director Wu Dan hopes the relationship with T.J. continues and grows.
âAs time goes by, this frequent visit between us definitely strengthens our ties,â she said.
Thomas Jefferson principal Aamir Ashiqali said the program allows students to be immersed in the Chinese culture and to get âa flavor of what itâs like to be there and live there.â
New DISD board member Elizabeth Jones attended last monthâs event and called the Thomas Jefferson participants âgreat ambassadorsâ of their school. She and her husband, Larry, are among sponsors.
âYou have taken a journey of more than a thousand steps,â Jones told the students. âI just honor all of you for your commitment.â
HOW TO HELP: Exchange program
This summer 10 students from Thomas Jefferson High School visited China for 30 days. The school would like to send even more students next year and is seeking sponsors and donations. Anyone interested in helping can send donations to:
Thomas Jefferson High School
Chinese Exchange Program
4001 Walnut Hill Lane
Dallas, Texas 75229
For more information, contact the school at 972-502-7300, or Eddie Conger, executive director over Thomas Jefferson High, at 972-925-3060.