The population of students who don't speak English in the Howard County school system is growing at about 10 times the rate of the general population, district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said yesterday.
That may explain why the Board of Education approved last night implementation of a new Chinese language and culture course for students interested in foreign languages.
"We've always wanted to include one of the Asian languages," said Debbie Espitia, the district's foreign language resource teacher. "We currently don't offer Chinese, Japanese, Korean."
The Chinese Language School of Columbia suggested that county high schools offer the course, she said.
Officials from the Chinese Language School, which meets Sundays at Howard High School, attended the school board meeting to show their support for the idea.
High schools offer French, Spanish, Latin, German, Italian and Russian.
It has been at least five years since a language has been added to the curriculum, Espitia said. That was Russian.
The Chinese course would be like any other first-year language class, covering culture, history and language and pronunciation.
As long as enough students are interested, the course would be offered in all 10 high schools, Caplan said.
Staff members believe students will be interested, and they hope to eventually add advanced Chinese language courses, Espitia said.
The plan is to begin offering Chinese in the 2001-2002 academic year. "That gives us time to do a good job promoting the course," she said.
Chinese-speaking students have offered to make a promotional videotape to encourage classmates to sign up for the course, she said.
School board member Stephen C. Bounds asked Espitia if enough teachers would be available to provide at least two levels of the language.
Espitia said that as long as funding is available, enough teachers should be available.
Board Chairman Sandra H. French asked district administrators to ensure enough teachers for all foreign language classes at least to the second level of study.
"I think offering this language is wonderful," French said. "But what I want us to be aware of is the commitment to the students we make when we say we are offering Chinese 1."
Most colleges require students to take two levels of the same foreign language, board members said.
Board member Karen B. Campbell jokingly asked members of the audience from the Chinese Language School if they would volunteer to teach. "I trust we have taken everyone's name here as prospective Chinese teachers," she said, as the audience laughed.
"Within 30 years, the minority population will outnumber the majority population as it stands now," Caplan said before the meeting.
"So we are aware that things are changing," she said. "This is just one way that we know of to enrich our curriculum to reflect the changes that are happening in our society and our community."
Also at the meeting, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey asked the board to authorize him to submit a request to the state to waive the required 180-day school year this year.
If approved by the state, four of the days that Howard County students missed because of remnants of Hurricane Floyd and snowstorms would be waived, making June 16 the last day of school. Without the waiver, schools will end June 20.
Sun staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.