University of Delaware

Delaware preschoolers
learn Chinese
Confucius Institute helps state launch language initiative

Youngster play the guzheng, a Chinese harp

Ming Wu, an instructor at the Confucius Institute at UD, helps this youngster play the guzheng, a Chinese harp.

The world is expanding for 5-year-olds in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney School District.

Students in other countries often learn world languages starting at an early age. To prepare Delaware’s workforce for a global economy in the coming decades, Governor Jack Markell has launched the World Language Initiative (WLI), with the goal of students mastering another language before entering high school.

During the past year, 100 kindergarteners attending the J. Ralph McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Magnolia, Del., entered the state’s only Chinese language immersion program. The youngsters spend half their day learning math, science and social studies in Chinese, and the other half in English-speaking classes.

The program was successfully started thanks to the efforts of several UD alumni and the Confucius Institute.

Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District, whose district has embraced the concept of preparing students for a global economy by offering six languages in high school, jumped at the opportunity to provide kindergarten students with the advantage of learning Chinese. He earned his doctorate from UD’s College of Education and Human Development.

Sherry Kijowski, principal at McIlvaine Early Childhood Center, and assistant principal Brook Castillo, both UD graduates, were responsible for implementing the program.

“It is amazing to walk through the halls this year and hear five-year-olds saying ‘ni hao’ (hello) and ‘xie xie’ (thank you),” says Kijowski. “We had 285 applicants for 100 slots in our school, demonstrating that many parents recognize the benefits of knowing another language and deliberately choosing to enroll their children in our Mandarin Chinese program.”

Carrie Fang, program coordinator at the Confucius Institute-and a UD graduate as well-led the collaboration with McIlvaine, helping to introduce Chinese language and culture to the community. Their popular evening programs, held monthly, typically attract more than 500 students and parents and have focused on such topics as Chinese characters, to instruments, costumes and traditional festivals.

The Confucius Institute

The Confucius Institute recently moved to 121 East Delaware Avenue in Newark, Del. The new headquarters accommodate a growing teaching staff and an expanding library of books and audiovisuals available to the public on topics ranging from Chinese language to cooking. For more information, visit

“At our first event in October, ‘Literacy Night,’ we used simple crafts to teach students their first Chinese characters and gave all participating students and parents their first-ever Chinese names in the form of a calligraphy souvenir,” Fang says.

Since few teachers in Delaware are qualified to teach in Chinese, the Confucius Institute helped connect state officials with Hanban, a Chinese government agency that identifies teachers who want to work overseas for up to three years.

Impressed by the success of the existing programs, Markell has committed to expanding the K-8 immersion program, with an annual investment of $1.9 million, designed to reach nearly 10,000 students by 2022. Seven elementary schools will begin offering the program in the upcoming school year.