Students immersed in Chinese language and culture

Students at Yinghua Academy.
Students at Yinghua Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota's first Chinese immersion school.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Chances are the words you hear to the tune Frere Jacque at Yinghua Academy are not the ones you learned in school.

St. Paul's newest charter school plans to surround students with Mandarin Chinese language and culture, while they learn a traditional curriculum of math, science and English.

duo gong neng shi
Duo gong neng shi -- the multi-purpose room at Yinghua Academy.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Nearly all of Yinghua's 80 students began their first day in a big room together, shoulder to shoulder, their feet lined up on long strips of tape on the carpet. They greeted their teachers, talked to each other and learned the school song.

Yinghua aims to provide a Chinese language-only environment, except for English reading and writing. Second and third graders will learn mainly in English to start, with Chinese phased in over time.

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Academy officials hired Betsy Lueth in April to be the school's director. She says she was heartened watching students show up for the first day.

"This morning the first three little ones that walked in, they're all in their uniforms and they have their backpacks, and they're all ready to go. It was just right. It just felt right," Lueth said.

Betsy Lueth.
Betsy Lueth is the school's director.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Lueth most recently taught fifth grade at St. Paul's Spanish and English language Academia Cesar Chavez. Her adopted daughter, born in China, is now a first grader at Yinghua.

"Especially as the world is becoming smaller, and Chinese is becoming a much more powerful language in the economy, that we're going to help kids find commonalities with one another," said Lueth. "Maybe this is idealistic, but I'd like to find a way for everyone to become friends across the oceans and find peaceful ways of communicating with each other."

The school has yet to identify the students' ethnic backgrounds, but it's evident a majority of the students here are Asian girls. While many are adopted from China by American parents, others are children of Asian families living in the Twin Cities.

School officials say students come from nearly 20 different ZIP codes around the metro area. The school's plan is to add one grade level every year, expanding into high school if demand keeps up.

The dragon is an important symbol in Chinese culture. A board member donated this tapestry to the school.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Cindy Moeller chairs the Yinghua Academy Board. She's also a consultant with the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. She originally got started in the early stages, before organizers decided the new charter school would be a language immersion program focused on Chinese.

After talking with parents and touring a Chinese language school in Portland, Oregon, Moeller was convinced the concept could work here.

"As we learned about language immersion, we realized that was really the way to go," said Moeller. "You can have a language immersion program that would be a superior way to teaching a second language to a child, and in a language immersion program children can still excel academically in all subjects."

Parents have a variety of reasons for choosing Yinghua. Jennifer Daul has two children adopted from China enrolled at the academy, and helps head the parent-teacher organization. She says it was hard to move out of the traditional public school environment.

But given China's growing economic might, Daul says the school will open up career and travel opportunities for them later in life. And it offers emotional benefits from the start.

"Having the connection to the Chinese culture could be really important to our children, given they were Chinese-born," said Daul. "Also, when you look to the future in terms of learning a second language -- and if that language could be Mandarin Chinese -- it could open up opportunities in the future."

Only first, second and third graders came for the first day of classes at Yinghua. Kindergartners start their school year later in the week.