SPHS Chinese Trip Over Spring Break a Major Success

A trip over spring break saw South Pasadena High School students immerse themselves into the Chinese language and culture by living there. Courtesy photo

What started more than a year ago as a layoff notice to a Chinese-language teacher, resulting in a small but vocal protest at a South Pasadena Unified School District (SPUSD) Board of Education meeting, has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime foreign exchange program to China for So Pas High School students.

Last April, Melissa Cheng, a language teacher at South Pasadena High School (SPHS) was notified she was going to be terminated from her language teaching post, only to have that notice rescinded a short time after that.

Moreover, initially the call for the layoff prompted a small protest at the School Board meeting back in April of last year. A small contingent of family, parents and friends appeared in front of the board protesting the layoffs and holding signs that said, “No to Cuts” and “Keep All Our Language Classes.” The small band of protesters said eliminating the part-time teacher position would adversely affect the Chinese language program.

However, and at the time, School Board President Jon Primuth reiterated the district’s commitment to the foreign language program, saying there are steps that can be taken to even strengthen the program.

“…although we wish we could have avoided the staff reduction, I strongly believe there are positive steps we can take to strengthen the Chinese language program at the high school,” Primuth said in an email to the Review prior to the district rescinding the layoff notice last year. “When I met with the parents on April 10 (2018), I challenged them to join me in forming a booster club to support our Chinese language program through fund-raising, extracurricular activities and language and cultural immersion experiences. As a Chinese speaker who learned the language in China, I am passionate about giving our students immersion experiences. I raised my hand to help organize the club and its initial activities. Let’s send our students to China; I’ll be a chaperone. Let’s immerse them in language and culture outside the classroom. We live in one of the largest Chinese immigrant communities in the U.S. Let’s take advantage of that. “

And that’s where the trip to China over this past spring break comes in.

This past spring break, Cheng and Primuth did join together to take 29 SPHS students to China for a total emersion experience into the language and the culture.

“School (Board Member) Jon Primuth and I worked together to get a home-stay program in Nanjing, China,” Cheng said in an email this week to The Review. “The South Pasadena Chinese-American  Club (SPCC) was enthusiastic about it and we worked together to make it happen. They helped set up the SPCC Student Club and they raised $7,000 to cover some of the costs. We had four chaperons; besides me, we had Yuki Cutcheon, a parent; Grace Wu, a parent; Jon Primuth, board member. We brought 29 students on the trip. This was a great opportunity for students to learn the Chinese language and the culture.”

Cheng also said this trip would not have come about without the strong support and help from Primuth.

“I’m really hoping this tour will draw students to the Chinese language program…,” Primuth said in an earlier email to The Review about the trip to China. “It will also greatly benefit our current SPHS Chinese language students. The trip is designed as a language and cultural immersion program, so it’s not a vacation tour where the students are hopping on and off buses all the time. They’ll have real home stays in Chinese homes. They’ll have real group interaction with Chinese students. They’ll eat real Chinese food, which for some will be a surprise if they’ve been used to Americanized Chinese food. Of course there’s so much history to learn as well. Language and cultural immersion is key to success in learning a language.” 

One of the students on the trip, Chris Liu, son of Melissa Cheng, said the trip was important.

“First, I’d like to start off by saying that the family I stayed with was better off than some others,” Liu said in an email to The Review. “The son, Zhang Muqun, was very nice, as well as his parents. They treated me like I was their own son. They would regularly bring me snacks and drinks or ask me if I needed anything. They made me feel very comfortable staying at their house. All in all, the experience was great and I would recommend to anyone.”

As part of this same exchange partnership, several months ago and prior to the spring-break trip, SPHS hosted here a delegation of 22 middle and high school teachers with China. SPHS principal Janet Anderson, Cheng and Primuth answered numerous questions from the teachers about SPUSD schools. Anderson specifically shared about how to address student anxiety in high-pressure academic environments. The group also toured the campus and saw student-athletic teams in action. The education exchange organization JESIE (Jiangsu Education Services for International Exchange), based in Jiangsu province, brought the teacher delegation to SPHS.  

Primuth and Cheng said they hope the trip to China will happen again and become an annual opportunity for SPHS students.

“I want this program to continue,” Cheng said. “It is a perfect way for our students to learn the language and the culture. They don’t just learn it, they live it.”