MONCKS CORNER -- When Berkeley High School students arrive for the first day of classes today, dozens of them will have the opportunity to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese.

The school was awarded a grant from the American Councils for International Education's Teachers of Critical Languages Program to bring in a teacher from China for a year, said Berkeley High Principal Kim McLaren.

Ru Yi, 27, who is from Beijing, arrived in Washington, D.C., in late July for training. She's been in Moncks Corner for a little more than a week. Ru has been teaching Chinese to foreign students in China for the past fours years. She's also working on a master's degree in teaching Chinese to speakers of other languages at Peking University.

She's excited not only about teaching Berkeley High students to speak her language but also about helping them learn about her culture. Learning Chinese will "provide a key or a window to see the world," Ru said.

More than 28,000 students are expected to show up at Berkeley County School District's 40 schools today for the first day of the school year, said district spokeswoman Kathie Sizemore. That's a slight increase from last year's enrollment.

About 40 Berkeley High students have signed up for Ru's Chinese classes, McLaren said.

"We work hard to open the world to our students, to show them the world beyond Moncks Corner."

The school now offers an international business academy, she said. And school leaders have been working for the past two years to do what's required to offer an International Baccalaureate program at the school, she said. She hopes the school will land final approval early next year.

Ru wants to learn about the United States -- the real place, not the fictionalized version on TV and in movies -- as much as she wants to teach her students about China. "I've been waiting a long time," to see the United States, she said.

Her family was very supportive about her spending a year abroad. They simply wanted to make sure she was living and teaching in a safe place, Ru said.

Her friends also were behind her decision, she said. They told her she had to take a lot of pictures. And they wanted to know what the iPhone4 was like. You can bring the iPhone4 to China, Ru said, but it won't work there.

Ru knows it will be challenging for American students to learn Chinese, and her expectations for her students are realistic. By the end of the school year, she hopes her students will be able to speak some Chinese, draw a few characters and use a computer to type Chinese.

And she hopes they understand more about Chinese culture, to see the way Chinese people do things as "not a strange way, just a different way."

Staff at all of the district's schools were busy Monday preparing for the first day of classes, district officials said, and everything is on track.

Buses should run more smoothly with new bell times in place for high school students, Sizemore said. Those students won't begin school until between 8:25 a.m. and 8:35 a.m., she said. That's about an hour later than last year. High school students will be dismissed between 2:45 p.m. and 3:40 p.m., she said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.