SPHS Readies for Language Immersion Into China

Chinese teacher Melissa Cheng and School Board President Jon Primuth ready for China trip. Courtesy Photo

South Pasadena High School believes in total immersion when it comes to learning a foreign language. So much so that the Chinese language teacher and the school board president have joined forces to take a group of students to the source: China.

Melissa Cheng, SPHS Chinese teacher and Jon Primuth, school board president, met over the summer to try and figure out a way to make a trip to China a reality.

The two of them researched many options but decided on an experienced trip organizer for these types of excursions. That organizer, Jiangsu Education Services for International Exchange (JESIE), has deep ties with China and is well-versed in such trips, both Cheng and Primuth said.

Cheng is the program coordinator and Primuth is the program committee chairman for what is now called the “Dragon Tour to China.”

Ironically, Cheng was facing the possibility of losing her job at the end of last year as the SPHS Chinese language teacher when enrollment for her program dipped below acceptable numbers. The district has to implement certain actions to meet state requirements when it comes to layoffs, according to school officials. They were forced to issue layoff notices to Cheng and a social study teacher only to rescind them when enrollment numbers were better than anticipated, according to school officials.

There was even a small protest in front of the school board about the layoffs, which was led by Cheng’s husband. The enrollment numbers improved, however, and the layoffs rescinded.

Primuth, meanwhile, said he was committed to investigating the China trip because it’s the most effective way to inculcate a foreign language into your vocabulary. The district, he added, is committed to the foreign language program and this trip is another example of that commitment.

“I’m really hoping this tour will draw students to the Chinese language program, which was the focus of some publicity a few months ago,” Primuth said in an email to The Review. “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.”

The two of them created the itinerary with JESIE. They also went to SPHS Principal Janet Anderson to get her input.

“We met with the South Pasadena Chinese American Club to get their input,” Primuth said. “They love the idea and adopted the trip as one of their projects.”

Moreover, a handful of SPHS students, led by Charis Au, have formed a Chinese American Club at the high school focused on the “Dragon Tour to China.” The group has developed a full schedule of fundraising in organizing activities for the students.

There are 39 students registered so far, with the deadline ending Oct. 9. The final numbers of participants are being tallied. The trip is scheduled for 10 days from March 29 through April 7, 2019. There will be at least four chaperones.

The group will visit Shanghai, Nanjing and Suzhou. The students will join local Chinese students in classes including Chinese painting, embroidery, tea ceremony, folk music and dance, pottery, bonsai, calligraphy and Tai Chi. They will also tour world-renowned Suzhou Gardens for their beauty and Nanjing University.

The program will cost a $300 registration fee that includes transportation, accommodations, meals, tickets for local tours and travel insurance expenses in China. Students also will pay international air fares ranging around $650 along with a visa application fee of $140.

“Regarding the tour to China for SPHS students, as the program coordinator and SPHS Chinese language and culture teacher,  I feel very excited,” Melissa Cheng said in an email to The Review. “I think culture immersion is very important for language learning. It not only helps students apply their language knowledge, but also engages them in learning and makes this an experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives.”

Cheng also said this has been a long-standing ambition that she’s harbored for quite some time and now it’s finally become a reality. 

“It is our very first time to organize a student’s tour to China since the Chinese program started 15 years ago in our high school,” Cheng said. “Actually, I have planned and thought about this for several years, but due to a lot of limitations, it is hard to make it a reality but now it is, thanks to Mr. Primuth and the rest of the organizers. I am so grateful.”

Primuth and Cheng will be leading the tour while JESIE will be providing all the local activities, transportation, food and lodging.

“They’ll stay in Chinese homes, they’ll have real group interaction with Chinese students,” Cheng said. “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.”