Emma, four years old, with a black ponytail that pops off the side of her head like a slender bunch of prairie grass, repeats the word and gesture as her teacher holds up fingers and names a number. Emma is learning to count in Mandarin Chinese. She is not only practicing the word for each number but the unique finger sign as well.
Larry Yan, director of the Minnesota Chinese Daycare and Learning Center (MCDLC), explains that the Chinese use one hand to show the numbers from one to ten. The idea is that each finger sign suggests the Chinese character for that number.
Emma is part of a unique community of preschoolers made up of children from Chinese families living in the Twin Cities and children adopted from China by local families. She attends MCDLC, which is located in St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Roseville.
Yan founded the center six years ago with one child. This year the center has enrolled nearly 100 children. It offers daycare and preschool for Chinese language learners and Chinese children learning English. The school has activities in English, Chinese language, dance, music and art.
As MCDLC has grown, so has the demand for opportunities to continue learning Chinese after preschool.
Kristina Schatz, Falcon Heights resident and mother of a bilingual daughter at MCDLC, has devoted herself to meeting that demand. She is the start-up coordinator for Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion school that will open this fall.
“This will be the only Chinese immersion school in the state and among a handful of such schools in the U.S.,” says Schatz.
Yinghua Academy will become one of the nearly 125 charter schools now operating in Minnesota, three of which are language immersion schools. Charter schools are public schools open to all applicants and do not charge tuition.
Yinghua Academy is currently enrolling students entering kindergarten and first through third grades. Nearly 70 children from communities all over the Twin Cities have signed up to attend next fall. The school will be located at 1355 Pierce Butler Route in the Hamline Midway neighborhood.
Unlike a typical public school, charter schools are free to tailor their curriculum to the unique interests of a community. Yinghua Academy’s founders have been working with their board of directors and with Tara Fortune, immersion projects coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, to create a comprehensive and challenging curriculum.
The academy’s director, Betsy Lueth, has experience in charter schools as a former fifth-grade teacher at Academia Cesar Chavez, a charter school on the east side of St. Paul.
“I love charter schools,” she says. “They are absolutely necessary to offer school choice.” Lueth’s background includes studies and jobs in English, German and Spanish. She is also the mother of a daughter, Lucy, adopted from China. She thinks that her diverse language background is an asset.
When asked to compare education challenges today with those of previous generations, she says, “Our children are dealing with a different, smaller world.”
Yinghua Academy’s curriculum will reflect community “bridge building” between language groups, Lueth says. Students will study the same school subjects — math, reading and writing — as students in other St. Paul schools, but the language of instruction will be Mandarin Chinese. The curriculum will prepare them to be knowledgeable about both American and Chinese culture.
Students in kindergarten and first grade will experience “full immersion” during the learning day. For students entering this fall in second or third grade, classroom instruction will be in English with daily language classes in Mandarin Chinese.
The academy hopes eventually to expand the school to K–8.
Charter schools must have a board of directors. Yinghua Academy’s board includes adoptive parents like Schatz, as well as members of the Twin Cities Chinese community.
Larry Yan, MCDLC director, is also a board member. He says the Chinese community that Yinghua Academy intends to serve continues to grow.
Since the late 1970s, when China opened up to the West, the native Chinese community in Minnesota has expanded to 20,000. The University of Minnesota has the largest community of Chinese scholars and students in the United States, according to Yan.
Yan himself came to this country from China in 1989 to study education at St. Thomas University. His son was 11 when the family came to St. Paul. He says there are families like his own who want their children to maintain and further their knowledge of their native Chinese in addition to learning English.
“Kids need school to continue learning Chinese,” says Yan.
Like many adoptive parents, Kristina Schatz and her husband traveled to China to finalize the adoption of their daughter, Kai Lu. She says, “The day we were leaving China, I felt very sad. It is such an amazing place. It has such a beautiful culture. I just thought, this has to be a part of her life.”
St. Anthony Park resident Katherine Quie sees both a practical and emotional benefit for her daughter Emma, who will attend Yinghua Academy next fall. Emma was adopted from China when she was 13 months old. Since her arrival in Minnesota she has continued learning Chinese at the daycare center.
In addition to speaking Chinese at school with teachers and friends, her mother says, “Emma speaks Chinese to herself when she is alone in her room. I think she finds it self-soothing.” She adds, “Some day, if she chooses, it may provide emotional ties to China. She’ll be able to connect with elders.”
Yinghua Academy will hold an open house Saturday, June 3, from 4 to 5 p.m. at 1355 Pierce Butler Route in St. Paul. There will also be an informational meeting at the Roseville Library (2180 Hamline Ave. N. in Roseville) on Saturday, June 17, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. For more information about the school, visit www.yinghuaacademy.org.