Chinese immersion schools growing in popularity

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December 19, 2011
By: Bryna Godar
Bryna Godar

NORTHEAST PARK — At Yinghua Academy, children’s art lines the walls – thumbprint trees, traced hands, self-portraits. It looks like most elementary school hallways, but the kids have signed their artwork twice, once in English and once in Chinese characters.

Yinghua Academy, 1616 Buchanan St. NE, opened in 2006 as the first Chinese immersion charter public school in the Midwest. Students learn a curriculum ranging from history to math, all in Mandarin Chinese. Teachers instruct students completely in Chinese for kindergarten and first grade. In second grade one English class is added, and by sixth grade the curriculum is taught half in English and half in Chinese. Signs on classroom doors ask visitors to not speak English to the
teachers in front of students.

Many students don’t even know their teachers can speak English, said Karen Calcaterra, the grant administrator and a parent of two students at Yinghua. She and her husband believe in the value of bilingualism. They lived in China for a year on sabbatical while Craig Calcaterra, Karen’s husband, worked as a visiting math professor. Karen Calcaterra taught English to the freshmen. They enrolled their kids at Yinghua after returning to St. Paul, aiming to continue their Chinese education.

“It’s a pretty cool thing, I like it,” said her son Cormac Calcaterra, a fifth-grader at Yinghua. “It teaches you one of the most hardest languages to learn: Chinese.”

“For us, immersion provides multilingualism, proven cognitive benefits and flexibility, dynamic and engaging teaching methods, and opportunities for deep cultural connections and understandings,” Karen Calcaterra said.

Chinese immersion programs like Yinghua Academy have become more popular in recent years, with five programs now in place around the state. In 2007, St. Cloud State University helped start Guang Ming Academy, a Chinese immersion program at Madison Elementary School with 117 students. The program currently includes kindergarten through fourth grade, with a higher grade level added each year. St. Cloud State University does observations and coaches the teachers, said Dawn Gent, the school improvement facilitator at Madison Elementary School. Hopkins and Minnetonka school districts also began programs in fall of 2007, and Lakes International Language Academy began its this fall.

Yinghua’s enrollment has grown from 76 to around 450 students, and it has added a middle school. The student population, originally 70 percent Asian, has become more diverse; 50 percent is now white, black or Hispanic, and less than 3 percent of students are from Chinese-speaking households.

Language immersion programs aim to develop bilingualism from a young age. “When they learn a language younger, they sound more like a native speaker,” Gent said,

Research shows benefits of language immersion extend beyond bilingualism. Learning a second language helps students’ overall learning ability at school, Gent said. In addition to the advantages of bilingualism, immersion learners benefit cognitively, exhibiting greater nonverbal problem-solving abilities and more flexible thinking, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit organization that provides research-based resources related to language and culture.

Some parents express concern about the English learning skills of their children. “Their English skills aren’t where we would expect a typical kindergartener, first, second grader to be,” Gent said. “That is normal in an immersion program.”

“Sometimes I forget some words in English, so I have to say it in Chinese,” said Cassidy Calcaterra, Karen Calcaterra’s daughter, who is in second grade. “The English is more harder than the Chinese.”

Both Gent and Jen Shadowens, chair of the Yinghua school board, said they encourage parent instruction and reading in the home. “But parents aren’t teachers,” Gent said. “There are different things we teach at school that they wouldn’t teach at home.”

“One of the biggest challenges is having the parent community accept that their kid doesn’t have the initial reading skills,” Karen Calcaterra said.

Standardized tests show that by fifth grade, students in immersion programs catch up to and often surpass math and reading levels of their peers. Yinghua Academy uses the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments to measure student progress. In 2010, 92 percent of students in third through seventh grade passed the math test, and 84 percent passed the reading test, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The state average was 66 percent for passing the math test and 72 percent for passing the reading test.

Many teachers agree, however, that identifying language learning disabilities in immersion settings is hard. A report by the Center for Applied Linguistics noted that the suitability of immersion schools for children with such disabilities is still in question. “Research on this topic is scant,” the report said.

At Guang Ming Academy, teachers deal with potential disabilities by offering multiple chances for a student to understand the material. If they don’t understand in the large class setting, they redo the lesson in small groups, then provide parents with the material in English to help their kids at home. If the student still doesn’t understand in English, then “there might be more going on,” Gent said.

Programs also face difficulties finding long-term staff. “We have a lot of teachers from China or Taiwan, but who only stay for a few years,” Shadowens said. They are trying to draw teachers from the U.S. who might be more permanent, but there is an increasing demand for Chinese teachers nation wide. “It is important to have teachers who stay,” Shadowens said.

Yinghua expects to soon outgrow its red brick building on Buchanan Street. The School Board is waiting on state approval to expand into a second building next fall for a few years until a long-term plan for a new location is finalized.

Guang Ming Academy, Madison Elementary School’s program in St. Cloud, will expand to include middle school in 2013 and hopes to add a high school program eventually. “They would like to see it go all the way through,” Gent said.

Bryna Godar is a student at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information about the school's plans for a new location.)