Failing Georgia school pushes Mandarin language

A student at Sonny Carter Elementary School in Macon, Ga., learning Mandarin
CBS News

(CBS News) MACON, Georgia - A failing school district in Macon, Georgia, where half the 25,000 students fail to graduate, has taken drastic steps to turn the system around -- and it includes an unusual mandate.

At Sonny Carter Elementary School, third-graders are learning the most widely spoken language on earth: Mandarin Chinese.

Learning Mandarin is now mandatory in Macon, Georgia, public schools.

Mark Fuller has Mandarin class three days a week, taught by one of 25 Chinese teachers sent to Macon from China, their salaries partially subsidized by the Chinese government.

"I like learning new things. I like learning the words... It's just awesome," Fuller said.

Within three years all 25,000 kids at all Bibb County Schools will be taking Mandarin. This is one of Georgia's lowest achieving school systems, where half the kids drop out.

Romain Dallemand is the new superintendent for Bibb County Schools, and he wants big change for this troubled system.

"This is about opening their world. This is about preparing these students to compete in a 21st century, multi-ethnic economy," Dellemand said.

He's Haitian-born and spoke only Creole until he came to America in the ninth grade. He made Mandarin mandatory over the objections of many Macon parents.

"Nothing I've read convinces me this is the way, this is the language, this is the avenue that schools need to take," said Macon parent Sandie Parker.

Parker wants options for Chandler, her second-grader. Her choice for him would be Spanish, not Mandarin.

Dallemand said even though many students are struggling with English, Mandarin should still be a priority, adding "Manadarin is one piece of the Macon miracle."

The district is investing $2.76 million in Dallemand's Macon miracle - that's what he is calling his plan for sweeping changes in the classroom, with an emphasis on math and reading.

"How many students should we lose as a community before we do something fundamental to improve students performance?" Dallemand asked.

And while not everyone has an ear for the language of change, so far just two unhappy parents have pulled their kids out of Mark Fuller's Mandarin class.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.