As Americans debate revelations about sweeping data collection by the National Security Agency, the secretive federal department has funded a seemingly more benign agenda at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto.
In a summer program known as STARTALK, 20 fifth- and sixth-graders are honing their Mandarin speaking, listening, reading and writing skills through in-depth study of the centuries-old Chinese folk tale "The Magic Paintbrush."
Students have read the text in Mandarin, sung its stories, incorporated its lessons into their own 21st-century versions of the folk tale and created iMovies of the rewritten versions. On Thursday, July 3, they were to perform the original story in colorful, hand-made costumes for their parents.
The Ohlone program is one of more than 100 similar summer initiatives across the country aimed at boosting Americans' abilities in Chinese languages and other "less commonly taught languages," said Duarte Silva, the Stanford University-based executive director of the California World Language Project.
Those "strategic languages" include Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Farsi, with Korean soon to be added to the list.
Since the federal program began in 2006 Silva has been securing summer STARTALK grants, $90,000 of which this year is funding the four-week Ohlone program as well as a program for Sunnyvale middle school students that began this week. Later in the summer Silva and Stanford colleague Helene Chan will present their research about language training in a workshop for language teachers from across the nation.
STARTALK had its origins under President George W. Bush, Silva said, when in the wake of Sept. 11 the State Department realized it was "having trouble finding individuals with the language skills to fulfill our diplomatic missions. The Department of Defense was having the same issue, especially with cultures and officers not understanding the cultures where they were going."
The multi-agency federal effort known as the National Security Language Initiative, aims to "dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical-need foreign languages ... through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce."
Such details were probably lost on the fifth- and sixth-graders in the Ohlone classroom of co-teachers Claire Albert and Shaohua She as they crafted clay sets for their iMovies, sewed costumes, sang a song with paintbrush props and rehearsed their lines all in Mandarin.
Most students in the class are recent graduates of Ohlone's K-5 Mandarin Immersion Program and several others are "heritage speakers" at a similar level, Silva said.
In Mandarin testing, the Ohlone students are performing at the level of students who have taken three years of high school Chinese, Silva said.
"They have a considerable amount of language behind them," he said.
Since Mandarin Immersion in Palo Alto ends with fifth grade, students will try to maintain the language by other means through middle school until they can resume school study in high school.
The kindergarten-through-college STARTALK program is one of more than a dozen educational and exchange programs for students and teachers under the National Security Language Initiative, a joint effort of the U.S. Departments of Education, State, Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Programs.
STARTALK is led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Programs, with the NSA as "executive agent for the intelligence community," according to a federal circular describing the program.