Oakland resident Wallace Lee crammed himself into a small room in Oakland’s Chinatown with nearly three dozen other parents on Saturday afternoon to hear plans for what many East Bay residents see as an unfilled gap in the area’s education system: a public school with a Mandarin-English curriculum.
The meeting, at the Lincoln Square Recreation Center, was a chance for those parents – who sat elbow-to-elbow at cafeteria-style tables – to hear about the new Yu Ming Charter School, a public dual-immersion kindergarten-through-eighth grade program scheduled to open in August.
“I’ve been always wanting, hoping something like this could happen in Alameda [County],” said Lee, who attended the meeting even though his daughter is only 15 months old. Lee said he wanted to get a jumpstart and learn more about the school, which he hopes will be a future option for his daughter. He called Yu Ming a “pioneering venture” for East Bay residents and their children. While there are similar schools in nearby San Francisco, Cupertino and Hayward, a majority are exclusive to residents of each city and the non-exclusive ones require a daily commute.
Lee speaks Cantonese, and his wife is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Like many of the parents at the meeting, they now commute to nearby cities for free and low-cost after-school Mandarin programs. Lee takes his son—now a second-grader—to Piedmont every Tuesday and Thursday, and then to another program in Oakland on Saturdays. The only other option was private school, Lee said, but that came with a hefty price tag. Even though he lives only three blocks from the prestigious Head Royce School, which offers Mandarin classes as a part of the curriculum, he said the starting tuition of $20,800 was too much.
Chrissy Schwinn, one of nine founding family members of Yu Ming, has two children—ages three and five—who are both currently enrolled in a private Mandarin preschool. Coming from a public school background herself, Schwinn said Yu Ming is the best choice for her children because the dual-immersion model is “the best tested one out there” and showcases the founding members’ “passion for raising our kids bilingual.”
It was that passion that led to the creation of the charter school. Two of the founding family members, Melissa Tom and her husband Michael Jugo, were searching for a Mandarin school for their two children—even scouting schools in other states—when they decided to create Yu Ming. Community outreach started last spring and Schwinn said there was interest in all areas of Alameda County, including the northern part where there are currently no public options. “Based on that positive feedback we were receiving, we said ‘Let’s go ahead with this,’ and submitted our charter in August,” Schwinn said.
A 60-day review process and public hearing in October followed the submission of the charter. In November, the Alameda County Board of Education unanimously voted in favor of the charter school.
The main difference between Yu Ming and a traditional charter school will be the language in which the classes are taught. For the first three years, 90 percent of instruction will be in Mandarin. In grades three and four, it goes down to 70 percent and English and history lessons will be taught in English. As the children advance, instruction in Mandarin will continue to decrease and number of subjects taught in English will continue to increase, said Tom, who was leading the day’s presentation.
Yu Ming will also impose a schedule aimed to provide the most benefits for language retention—year-round schooling and longer school days. Tom said a year-round schedule is ideal because of the shorter vacation periods. There will also be 200 days of instruction, which is 20 more school days compared to a traditional public school, and school days will run about 7 hours and 15 minutes.
The school will admit 100 students this year: 50 kindergarteners and 50 first-graders. Roughly 50 percent of each class will consist of Mandarin-speaking students and the other half will be students who are not deemed as being proficient in Mandarin after an admissions interview. With each year that passes, a new grade level will be added, allowing for a total of 450 students in 2018.
A public lottery system for admissions will happen only if there are more than 100 applicants. The hierarchy of admissions starts with founding family members—parents who have volunteered a minimum of 50 hours to the school by the end of this month—having priority for their children, then Alameda County residents, and then all other applicants.
Schwinn said the founding family members have reached out to groups of varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds by holding informational meetings in Latino, African-American and non-Chinese Asian communities. Tom said goal is to always attain a diverse group of students.
“One of the best parts of this experience for me has been the great diversity of families that we’ve been able to meet,” Schwinn said. “I think we’ve had a good response so far.”
Though community support is vital in any successful venture, a large part of the equation is still missing: a location. Tom said a decision likely will be made by the end of February. Three sites are being discussed, with two in downtown Oakland and one in Alameda—none of which Tom said she can publicly share until a decision is made.
“The community that’s here; the ties to Asia that are here, we’re really excited how that can help support the school and how the school can help support that,” Schwinn said.