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At Howard County Chinese School, a celebration of culture and roots

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As the nation observes Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May, students and staff at a scholastic program in Columbia can boast that they highlight Chinese heritage year round.

Each Sunday, they gather at Howard Community College in Columbia for Howard County Chinese School, a program that offers lessons on Chinese language and culture for students in kindergarten through the 10th grade, as well as for adults.

Launched in 1998 with about 80 students, the school has grown to about 1,000 school-age enrollees and 400 adults, and has a faculty that includes instructors who taught at schools in China.

The school enrolls children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds from age 5, teaching Mandarin, simplified characters and the Chinese phonetic alphabet, school officials said.

The school also offers bilingual courses and after-school courses such as tai chi, chorus and martial arts.

"The school started about 16 years ago by a group of Chinese parents; they really didn't want their children to forget their heritage language," said Guoyi Fu, chair of the school's board of directors.

Fu said the school offers up to the 10th grade because "the Chinese language here is their second language, and when kids grow they start to slowly lose interest. They're getting busy, and in high school they're preparing for college applications.

"Normally, [older students] don't have time to go to Chinese school to learn the language," Fu said.

The nonprofit school has served as a cultural magnet for Howard County's Chinese community. As of 2010, the county had 8,625 Chinese residents, according to Maryland State Data Center figures.

Marriotts Ridge High School senior Tianhao Gao went to HCCS from elementary school to ninth grade. The Ellicott City resident, who was recently named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, said she believes the program not only bolsters her studies at Marriotts Ridge High, but has enabled her to forge an identity she believes will serve her well in college and beyond.

"It really helped me realize my cultural connection to my heritage," said Gao of the school. "I think that a lot of people … when they come to the United States all they want to do is assimilate, and become the American Dream, which is great. But sometimes they lose their identity, which is such a sad process."

"In college I want to continue learning Chinese because of what the school has taught me," added Gao, who has been accepted to University of Pennsylvania. "It's part of my identity, and it's part of me."

HCCS is a member of the Chinese School Association of the United States, a not-for-profit organization established by Chinese school leaders and educators that provide services to member schools that promote Chinese language and cultural education. The association comprises more than 300 schools in 41 states. Like HCCS, most of them operate on weekends or after school.

For the past two years, the school has been cited as a "model overseas school" by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, an administrative office that assists the Chinese government in overseas affairs.

Most HCCS students are from Howard County, but Principal Guowei Zhang said some come from Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County. He said the students pay tuition and the school raises revenue for after-school classes while renting the space from the community college. He said the school is "owned" by its parents and managed by a board of directors and a principal's executive committee.

"The parents elect the board members, the board appoints the principal and the principal hires staff," Zhang said. He said over the past five years the number of enrolled students has increased annually by 15 percent or more.

In November, the Howard County public school system said it had forged a partnership with the Chinese school that would allow HCCS to enhance the public school Chinese language curriculum and assist the school system in sharing information with Chinese families.

"We have a great partnership with Howard Chinese School," said Superintendent Renee Foose. "It's a great program."

Asian-Pacific Heritage commemorations originated with bills in the U.S. House and Senate in 1977 marking the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week, according to the federal government website. The bills were passed and were signed by President Jimmy Carter. Twelve years later, President George H.W. Bush signed an extension to make the commemoration a month long. The official designation was signed into law in 1992.

As part of its Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month observance, Howard County Chinese School conducts a Chinese essay competition and Chinese-language book reading competition.

"The celebration is profound in many ways. It honors the contributions made by generations of Asian-Americans," said Diane Li, community partnership liaison at HCCS. "I, as a member of the community, appreciate the recognition and the opportunity to raise culture awareness among the younger generation who are born and raised in America.

"As we immerse into the mainstream culture," Li said, "it is also important to celebrate and educate ourselves and the next generation to appreciate the rich culture heritage that is part of the vibrant and strong multicultural tapestry of America."

jburris@baltsun.com

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