St. Cloud State University and the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul have joined forces to include deaf and hard-of-hearing students in a first-of-its-kind cross-cultural exchange.

The Metro Deaf School has opened a “Confucius classroom” for students to learn Chinese sign language, history and culture. The school has brought in a deaf educator, Xuan Zheng, from China to lead the class. In partnership with St. Cloud State University, the school has received a five-year, $10,000 yearly grant from Hanban, the Chinese ministry of education’s outreach arm, to support the classroom.

“One of our missions is for students to become global citizens,” said Susan Lane-Outlaw, executive director of the Metro Deaf School, a pre-K through 12 charter.

Hanban has established hundreds of Confucius institutes and classrooms around the world to teach Chinese language and culture and promote cultural exchange.

The program will give students at Metro Deaf School the chance to study abroad and develop a relationship with a sister school in China. While the St. Paul students will learn Chinese, students at a special education school in China will learn American Sign Language.

Kathy Johnson, director of St. Cloud State’s Confucius Institute, invited the Metro Deaf School to take part in the Confucius classroom program.

“I knew the significance of including and engaging people who are deaf in cross-cultural exchanges and validating Chinese sign language as a language,” she said. “By including children who are deaf, you show them the opportunities that exist in the world and open their eyes to the world.”

It was a challenge for the school to find a deaf educator. When Zheng first proposed the idea, it was met with some skepticism. She had to obtain approval from the national Hanban organization because the deaf Confucius classroom is the only one of its kind. Hanban has never before assigned a deaf teacher, Zheng said via e-mail.

“As the first deaf teacher assigned by China’s government to go abroad, I feel very honored,” she said. “And I am so glad and proud to be the cultural ambassador between the deaf group of China and the United States.”

Zheng will start her formal lessons on Monday after observing classes for the past two weeks. She hopes students will be able to use their Chinese sign language to understand staples from Chinese culture such as the Peking opera and roast duck.

The school plans on hosting a Chinese New Year celebration in January.