In 2005, St. Paul community members began discussing the possible formation of a Chinese-focused school. Now in its second year of operation, Yinghua Academy in St. Paul boasts over 140 students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are learning Mandarin Chinese.
Yinghua Academy opened its doors at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. The academy began as a Chinese immersion charter school for children in kindergarten through fourth grade, adding fifth grade during the 2007-2008 school year.
After much research was done by the school’s board of directors and input was given by members of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, the school’s officials decided to start with full immersion in Mandarin Chinese in kindergarten and first grade. The students are instructed in all of their subjects in Mandarin.
Grades two through four had regular classes in English with an hour of Mandarin each day, along with their physical education and art classes in Mandarin once a week. The program is designed for children who speak English as their first language. Research showed children in second grade and above are often too old to be taught all of their classes in a second language that they had not yet studied.
Each year the school will add full immersion in the next grade up. For example, in its second year, Yinghua Academy added full immersion in second grade. Consequently, once the students who started in second grade during the first year graduate, the whole school will have all of their classes taught in full immersion in Mandarin.
Incorporating the Language and Culture
In addition to learning Mandarin in the classroom, the children in Yinghua Academy are surrounded by the language everywhere in the school. All of the signs and students’ artwork on the walls are in Mandarin. School officials want to make sure that the language was part of every aspect of the children’s day.
In addition to the language, the officials and the academy board also want to include the Chinese culture in the school curriculum. The academy honors Chinese celebrations throughout the different seasons of the year. They celebrate the Moon Festival, the Double Ninth Festival, the Lunar New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival and other holidays that aren’t such a major festival but are important with understanding the culture.
Parents join in with students and staff to make these festival celebrations fun and meaningful. The parents also volunteer for daily school duties.
“I think we have a smaller community feel here,” said Betsy Lueth, executive director, Yinghua Academy.
According to Lueth, there were three groups of people within and outside of the community who were pushing for a school with Chinese instruction: Chinese families within the area who wanted to have their children keep a part of their heritage; parents in the community who had adopted children from China and again wanted them to learn and preserve the language of their native heritage; and the Minnesota Department of Education.
The dream of the school was possible with this strong show of support from the parents, community and education, which made it possible to apply for “critical languages” funding from the Department of Education and other national sources.
In November 2005 a board was established and research was done to determine how the school would be organized. The first decisions of the board had to do with the level of Chinese focus and possible full immersion. Their research showed that full immersion was the best practice when acquiring a second language in primary school.
Lueth noted that research also showed that some children have lower English levels than their counterparts in public school settings. Researchers found that children in immersion programs were able to catch up in English skills competency by fifth grade.
When Yinghua Academy doubled its enrollment in their second year, it also doubled its teaching staff. The academy now has seven classroom teachers from different areas of the world with different backgrounds, all either native Mandarin speakers or at the native level of fluency. “We have a very rigorous interview process,” said Lueth.
In addition, the school has a physical education teacher, an art teacher, two educational assistants and many volunteers. Given the many subcategories of Mandarin, the school and all its teachers teach in Puto-nghuà, the standard form of the language.
In addition to determining how to set up the various classes, the academy also had to decide on curriculum for the students. Dr. Luyi Lien, Yinghua Academy’s curriculum coordinator, said there was not a model curriculum for the academy at the time she could use with developing the mission and plan of the school. She created Yinghua from parts of many different curriculums around the country. She translated all of the materials for the classes and the teachers write up their own lesson plans.
“They’re fabulous,” said Lueth of the staff.
Given that Yinghua Academy is such a young institution, Lueth has great plans for the future. Ultimately, she envisions that the academy will serve as a model for future Chinese immersion schools.
“I feel like we’re very pioneering in what we’re doing and that’s exciting to me,” said Lueth.
Pamela Feltmann is a Senior in Journalism and Public Relations at Bethel University.