St. John Regional Catholic School this year became the only middle school in the country to offer intensive Chinese language studies through a partnership with Hunter College of the City University of New York, a school official said.

The Chinese Flagship Center at Hunter is one of 11 centers nationwide that offer in-depth Chinese language and culture study through the Department of Defense. The program generally caters to undergraduate and high school students, according to St. John spokeswoman Sheila Evers.

St. John introduced Chinese language and culture studies seven years ago, but this is the school's first time running a blended learning program that includes about 60 children. Two groups of students rotate between a classroom and a computer lab, where they learn via text chat and a headset with teachers in New York.

The 24-week courses are designed to give students a superior level of proficiency in languages the Department of Defense has deemed "critical to U.S. competitiveness and security," including Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Swahili.

Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, helps run St. John's program. She wants students to look at the benefits of understanding the world's most populous country and its second-largest economy.

"Our purpose is to let them know there is another world called China outside I-270," she said. "To be able to bridge the two nations ... there's a lot of potential there."

The program costs around $16,000 to run when factoring in additional teacher training and technology, Chung said. Students will receive a certificate from Hunter for completing their course.

Teachers said splitting time between the lab and the classroom lets them supplement each other's lessons. Computer-based learning is better for individualized concentration, Kate Hanson said, while Ling-Chyi Liao can explain details face to face and lead art and culture projects in a traditional room.

Eighth-grader Michael Haley said distance learning exposes the students to new people and different styles of teaching. Different approaches to the material helps them retain one of the toughest languages they've tackled.

"You have to base it on pictures," eighth-grader Shaun Clem said. "You don't have roots."

Chung hopes to see a greater movement to embrace foreign language in Frederick County. Sparking an interest in Chinese early can pay off in the long run, through scholarships and job opportunities, she said.

"They might want to be a lawyer, they might want to be a doctor, they might want to be an engineer," Chung said of local students. "Their companies can send them overseas with these skills."

Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.

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