LANSING, Mich. — As eighth grade students at Post Oak Elementary School in Lansing, Ava Diaz and Washington Sampaio are proficient in Mandarin.
"Our students learn Mandarin through eighth grade at Post Oak, and they spend 50 percent of their instructional time with a Mandarin teacher and 50 percent of their instructional time with an English teacher," said the school's principal, Tracy Ojerio.
It's not just the language these students are practicing.
Post Oak Academy offers a Chinese Immersion program, and as students Ava and Washington study Chinese language, culture, and food, daily.
"It's not like an hour a day and you don't understand anything, you really get to dive deep," said Ava.
Post Oak is the only elementary school in Mid-Michigan to offer a Chinese Immersion program. They were able to implement it in 2006 because of the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University.
But, with Confucius Institutes around the country facing pressure from conservative lawmakers, the one at MSU is scheduled to close at the end of 2021.
Confucius Institutes are Chinese language and cultural centers funded by grants from China.
They're usually on college university campuses and they often work with their local K-12 schools to implement Chinese learning programs.
According to the National Association of Scholars, there are 36 Confucius Institutes in the United States.
Eight are scheduled to close, including the one at MSU.
"We had the teachers come from Michigan State University through the Confucius Institute," Washinton's mom, Monika Mayer, said. "So they literally came from China to do their studies in education."
The overall intent of the institute "is really to bridge two cultures, two civilizations together," said Ava's dad, Guillermo Diaz. "That's the intention. I know that recently, there's been more controversy, it's been kind of unfortunately looped into political issues."
Politics is likely the reason for MSU's and many other Confucius Institutes across the country closing.
In August of 2020, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a "foreign mission" of the Chinese government, and in recent years largely conservative lawmakers have called out the program for instilling a "pro-China" viewpoint.
Then, in March, the Senate voted to increase oversight on Confucius Institutes and cut Department of Education money to any university that didn't comply with the new regulation rules. The measure didn't pass in the House.
"I think it's really important that children learn another language," said Sierra Cameraon, Ava's mom. " cut... these children will not have that exposure. That's so important."
MSU officials declined to interview on the topic of why they are closing their Confucius Institute, but said in a statement that,"While the university is closing the institute, it is not closing its doors to continued engagement with China or the partnerships formed through the institute. Closing the institute was a difficult decision, but with the uncertainty of support at the federal level and our belief that more direct and intentional partnerships are a more sustainable and effective way to continue these important programs, we know this decision was best for the university and those we serve.
"Going forward, many of the institute’s programs will be transferred to other areas within the university so we can continue to benefit K-12 students and teachers who would not otherwise have these learning options available in their schools," the statement said.
Today Post Oak is self-sufficient and says administrators say it will operate as usual when MSU's Confucius Institute closes, but the closing of these institutes will have an impact on Chinese learning programs in the U.S., and inevitably, how our future generations interact with one of the world's super powers.
"I feel like it opens people up to the world," Washington said. "And that's really good for businesses and stuff. So if you're a businessman, you could travel all over the world."
Ava said that people "don't really expect someone that looks like me to just speak fluent Chinese. You know, it's kind of like a surprise. And for more people to be like that... It's really nice."
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