At Yu Ming School in Oakland’s Chinatown on a recent Thursday morning, the kindergarten classroom near the front office is colorful, papered with learning tools, construction paper, and children’s art. A teacher writes on the board in slow lettering, and an eager bunch of students slowly sounds out the words in a collective chirp. Unlike most other kindergarten classrooms across the country, though, the writing on the wall and on the board isn’t in English, or even in Spanish. It’s in Chinese characters.
Yu Ming is a four-classroom Mandarin immersion charter school in the middle of its first academic year. It’s free, and public, and admittance is decided by lottery. The school operates on a 90/10 model, meaning that 90 percent of the curriculum is taught in Mandarin — everything except for 40 minutes of English language a day. Down the hall from the kindergarten class, for example, first graders take a music lesson, learning songs and dances for this weekend’s Chinese New Year celebration.
In later grades, there will be more English, but early on, educators believe full immersion to be key. The school is also designated as “two-way,” meaning when the children start, about half of them are fluent in Mandarin, the other half in English; theoretically, much of their learning will come from interacting with each other.
“It was chosen based on a lot of research and advice,” says school principal Laura Ross of the 90/10 curriculum. “There’s no point in doing it half-heartedly, and it’s hard to see any disadvantages. There’s plenty of room for everything in their heads if you introduce it at an early age. They’re like sponges.”
Currently, there are two kindergartens and two first grades, each named after a different animal: panda, dragon, monkey and tiger. Each year moving forward the plan is to add grades from the bottom up until the school is a complete K-8, according to Ross. Next year they’ll add three more kindergarten classes, and the current first graders will become Yu Ming’s first second grade class.
Founded by a collective of 50 families, Yu Ming is funded both by private donors and by state money, and is authorized by the Alameda County of Office of Education, meaning any child in California is eligible to apply. The school is part of a larger trend of Chinese immersion programs springing up around the country. Utah is funding Chinese language education at the state level, and there are several Mandarin immersion schools in Minnesota.
“Chinese has been identified as a world language,” says Ross, a UK native who lived in China prior to coming to the Bay Area in early 2011. “The U.S. government has made a big drive to promote world languages and I think people are very aware of China and the growth of it as a global power. I think it is seen as being a language of the future.”
Many parents with progressive education attitudes, Ross says, want to place their children in Mandarin immersion programs, hoping to up the incidence of bi- or trilingual Americans by supporting schools like Yu Ming. And some, like Berkeley resident Kelly Scribner, are Chinese or Chinese-American and want to preserve their language traditions or ensure that their children have more exposure to the language than they did growing up.
“My family immigrated here when I was 5,” says Scribner. “I speak Mandarin, but I don’t read or write it at all. I took it at the college level, but then two years later, you realize you haven’t retained anything. It’s something I’ve always regretted.”
Scribner’s son, a first grader named Avery, had no Mandarin background when school started in August, and Scribner and her husband, who is Mexican-German, were resigned to speaking English at home. But when they heard about Yu Ming, they felt they were being given an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. A semester into Avery’s schooling, Scribner says she’s seen an uncanny amount of progress.
“We’ve seen leaps and bounds in his Mandarin,” she says. “Now, I make an effort to speak to him and his brother [who does not attend the school] at home. He understands almost everything I say—it’s amazing how quickly they pick it up. Also, we thought his English might stagnate, but he’s progressed with his English skills just as much.”
Non-Chinese families also laud the benefits of the immersion program. Yu Ming parent Chrissy Schwinn’s daughter started in Mandarin immersion Montessori, prompting her parents to join the group that founded Yu Ming. Although Schwinn herself speaks some Mandarin, she hopes that if her daughter is fluent in the language it will help her build extensive bridges, both personally and — if she wants — professionally later on in life.
Yu Ming is still working out the kinks that this type of start-up school faces, like space. Its building is an extension of the Shoong Family Chinese Cultural Center, and as the school expands, they’ll need something bigger and with more access to outdoor space. But despite the newness of it all, most agree that a strong bond has already taken hold among Yu Ming families.
“It’s a self-selected community,” says Scribner. “Coming here is a risk that families have to take, and it’s a long commitment. The kids are not going to be fluent in a year. And I think that today, so many families are so results-driven, they want to see what is being accomplished day in and out, and language acquisition simply doesn’t work that way. But I just think, ‘Imagine what they’re going to be like in eight years.’”
For more information on Yu Ming and for application information, visit the school’s website.