Five-year-old Leah Breen sits in a sunny classroom at Buxton Center Elementary School, watching as her teacher, Feng Yu, points to a picture of a kitten.

Without a second’s hesitation Leah shouts out “mao,” the Chinese word for “cat.”

“Good job!” Feng exclaims.

Leah is one of 278 kindergartners in MSAD 6 – which includes Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island – who are taking Chinese language and culture lessons this academic year from Feng Yu, a visiting teacher from China.

“(Leah) loves it,” says her mother, Michele. “If we’re around the house doing some kind of activity, like with her stuffed animals, I’ll say, ‘Well, let’s count,’ and she’ll do it in Chinese.”

The fact that many of the kindergartners are excelling doesn’t surprise the school’s assistant principal.

“Their brains are like sponges right now,” Charlotte Regan says. “They can pick up this stuff better than we can.”

But what does surprise Regan is the fact that certain students are demonstrating an unexpected proficiency.

“Some of our students who are having a hard time grasping some kindergarten concepts are actually flourishing with this. Which has been really amazing.”

And really beneficial for their future academic success.

“We know that when we offer languages as early as possible in a student’s academic experience,” says Jay Ketner, world language specialist at the Maine Department of Education, “they develop stronger problem-solving skills, outperform non-language learning students on word reading and spelling tasks, even their conceptual understanding in math improves.”

The state education department doesn’t keep track of the number of early language programs in schools, but as far as MSAD 6 superintendent Frank Sherburne knows, this is the only Chinese language class offered in public school in Maine at the kindergarten level.

Sherburne had the full support of the school board when he suggested the idea two years ago, but it wasn’t an easy sell to some community members.

“(Some people) didn’t understand why I would choose Chinese,” Sherburne says. “They saw it as a fringe language and typically fell back on, ‘Why not a Romance language?’ And my response was, ‘You need to look at the global marketplace.’ (I looked) at what kids are going to need for job skills in the future and Chinese jumped right out.”

Feng, 32, teaches 16 classes a week. She also tutors older students who have an interest in learning about China.

“(I’m) busy and happy,” she says with a smile. “Maine is (an) amazing place. The kids, I love them. My co-workers, my superintendent, my principal … they treat me like family.”

She is here courtesy of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Teachers of Critical Languages Program. The program is designed to increase the study of world languages in this country.

Back home in Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people, Feng teaches English to elementary school children. She felt prepared for her first visit to America.

“My generation in China, since we grow up we watched a lot of American films and TV shows,” she says. “I think we know a lot of things about America.”

But she didn’t know much about the education system and how it differs from that of China, where large classrooms mean more lectures and less student participation.

“I believe some of the kids in America have more creative abilities than our Chinese kids, so I want to know how this education system works,” she says.

“Since I got here, thanks to my colleagues, they help me to (learn) the new teaching strategies … not just repeat after teacher.”

She’s the first to admit that teaching Chinese to 5-year-olds can be a challenge.

“I need to plan a lot of different activities to keep them busy.”

The school district has already applied for a grant to continue the Chinese language program next year and hopes to offer more classes in other languages in the future.

“We really are opening a world to our kids at a very early age that otherwise they might not be exposed to,” superintendent Sherburne says. “We’re bringing the world to them.”