Ricardo Ramirez, Alexis Perez, Emily Cowan and Rafael Chavez, from left,… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)
Most students in the Chinese language class at Cedarlane Middle School in Hacienda Heights have never heard of Confucius.
"Con what?" asked Ricardo Ramirez, 11, who loves to impress classmates with his loud and clear greetings of "Hello!" and "I love you!" in Mandarin.
But a proposal to bring more resources to his school's Chinese program has sparked heated debate over whether the Chinese government -- in the ancient philosopher's name -- should have a role in helping American schoolchildren learn. It's a controversy that lays bare tensions in a community that has undergone a major demographic shift and is now more than a third Asian.
In January, the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board voted 4 to 1 to adopt a new Chinese language and culture class at Cedarlane next fall, at no cost to the district.
Confucius Classroom is paid for by the Chinese government's Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban.
"I am not against the teaching of foreign languages, but this is a propaganda machine from the People's Republic of China that has no place anywhere in the United States," said John Kramer, 73, a former superintendent of the district who has been vocal in the debate.
Supporters insist the concerns are unwarranted.
"A lot of people are saying it's a way for the Chinese people to brainwash our students. They are really misinformed," said Jay Chen, vice president of the Hacienda La Puente board. "From Oregon to Rhode Island, public schools have implemented the same program. As far as I can see, nothing sinister is going on."
Chinese language programs have become increasingly popular with China's rise as a superpower. In 2004, Beijing capitalized on that demand by creating the Confucius Institute to promote Chinese language and culture at the university level. The program, officials say, is much like Germany's Goethe-Institut and France's Alliance Française.
People worried in 2004 too, said Susan Pertel Jain, executive director of the UCLA Confucius Institute. "Everybody was concerned we would be told what to do, what to teach. That's not the situation at all. It's very much a partnership," she said of UCLA's program, which opened in 2007.
As of last year, there were more than 280 Confucius Institutes worldwide. Last year, Hanban expanded the idea, launching the Confucius Classroom to focus on kindergarten through 12th grade education. Already, there are about 200 Confucius Classrooms.
Although Cedarlane appears to be the first school in the Los Angeles area to sign up, at least seven are up and running around San Diego.
"The Confucius Classroom has been such a wonderful gift to our school," said Edward Park, principal of the Barnard Mandarin Chinese Magnet elementary school in San Diego, which adopted the program in October. "We've not had one single opposition."
Hacienda Heights was more than 36% Asian, primarily Chinese, when the last census was taken in 2000. The area has changed dramatically since longtime residents such as Mary Ann King arrived.
"We don't need to accept money from a Chinese government," said King, who has lived in Hacienda Heights for 42 years and once hosted the children's television show "Romper Room." "If it's funded by them, their doctrine will be part of the curriculum. It's wrong. We don't need to do this to our children."
School officials say that very little about the Mandarin program will change under the new sponsorship. Hanban will provide $30,000 to $50,000 for extra teaching materials, books, a laptop computer. The program will also provide some of its own materials and might send a teaching assistant from China to help the teacher who runs the class, said Principal Janine Ezaki.
Norman Hsu, 74, a longtime school board member who voted to adopt the program, says all teaching materials from Hanban will be reviewed by the school and will be available for public inspection. He said he has already seen some samples and found nothing inappropriate.
"They include stories and fables like the Monkey King," said Hsu. "There are also poker cards with Chinese characters for trains and cars. . . . So why are we worried?"
Asians now also dominate the school board, 3 to 2. Kramer, the former superintendent, says that could change.
"Our kids need to be taught Americanism," he said. "This board is going to pay a price. I think the community is upset enough to vote them out."
Chen, the newest and youngest member of the school board, said such comments about the program miss the point.
"People accuse us of advancing a Chinese agenda. They say the Chinese community is taking over," he said. "But one of the reasons to have the program is to make Cedarlane more attractive to all students, not just the Chinese."
At Cedarlane, most of the students in Ricardo's Chinese class are Latino.
"I already know two languages. The more languages I know, the better jobs I'll get," said Ricardo, a sixth-grader who speaks English and Spanish at home. "If I have kids, I can teach them Chinese. They can all get better jobs."