At XinXing Academy in Hopkins, kindergarten students spend their entire school day immersed in Mandarin Chinese. That means they don't hear one word of English from their teacher.
Teacher Qiuyue Wang tells her students to take their folders and put them in their backpacks, because it's almost time for lunch. She gestures and points, and some students figure it out. Others look around for clues, unsure and confused.
Then again, it's only day three of their immersion into Chinese. And already, they're learning some of the basics, like how to count to five and say hello in Chinese.
In the next room, teacher Donghong Wang is reading a short storybook to her class, and they've already memorized some of the words.
Wang says by the middle of the school year, her students will be speaking to her in Chinese, and by the end of the year, they'll be able to read short children's books in Chinese. They'll learn some of the strokes needed to write Chinese characters.
But the first few days of an immersion program can be a little rocky.
"Sometimes they confuse their snack time, they bring lunch. They eat their lunch, and then at lunch time, they eat their snack!" Wang laughs. "But yesterday is better. I think today, no problem!"
Wang taught last year at Minnesota's first Chinese immersion school, Yinghua Academy. The St. Paul charter school, now in its second year, isn't alone now.
Along with Hopkins' XinXing Academy, two Minnetonka elementary schools now offer Chinese immersion programs. Excelsior Elementary and Scenic Heights Elementary in Minnetonka have Chinese immersion for kindergarten and first graders. The program has already drawn about 100 students.
At XinXing Academy, more than 40 kindergarten students are enrolled, and the school plans to add one grade level each year. Principal Rosemary Lawrence said the district heard from Hopkins parents who wanted their children to learn Chinese.
"One of the moms that was particularly interested has adopted a daughter from China, and her daughter will be coming to XinXing next year," said Lawrence. "So she was really working on the program a year in advance, because she believed a lot in it and thought it was a great idea. And we were really impressed with the interest that surfaced almost immediately in the community."
Lawrence said Hopkins worked with the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, and decided that an immersion program was the best way for children to learn the difficult language.
Lawrence traveled to China this summer with about 800 educators from around the country, and found that Minnesota is a step ahead of many other states in developing Chinese immersion programs.
"We're offering something that they're hoping to offer. They see the value," Lawrence said. "Sitting in schools in China and having first-graders speak to me in English when they've just almost begun -- it was very powerful in saying, this is a great experience we're giving kids."
State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren agrees.
"We certainly hope that as many students as possible will have this experience," Seagren said.
Seagren believes that more Minnesota students should learn a second language, and that it's beneficial to study the language spoken in the world's most populous country. She believes the exposure to another culture alone is valuable.
"Particularly a culture that we're probably going to be working very closely with, either through business connections, or through just many, many different ties," said Seagren. "Our kids may end up living and working over there, going to school over there, if we continue to have these partnerships."
This year, the Minnesota Legislature approved $250,000 in grants for school districts to establish world language programs, and $50,000 of that is earmarked for a Mandarin Chinese program at one district. But many districts aren't waiting for state money to offer Chinese.
While the number of Minnesota schools teaching Chinese is growing rapidly, the state has a history of offering Chinese language instruction. Both South High School in Minneapolis and Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul have taught Chinese for more than two decades.