In September 2015, President Obama and Xi Jinping, President of China, announced the One Million Strong initiative, which aims to increase the number of K-12 students in the United States studying Mandarin from 200,000 to 1 million by the year 2020.
In 2006, long before this initiative was announced, Yinghua Academy (Yinghua) opened its doors to 79 students in Saint Paul. It was the first Chinese immersion charter school in the United States and first Chinese immersion school in the Midwest. Ten years later, Yinghua has moved its location to Northeast Minneapolis, has undergone a significant facility expansion, and has reached enrollment capacity four years sooner than anticipated—serving 806 students from 97 zip codes in grades K-8.
The characters that make up the Chinese word Yinghua refer to "English" and "Chinese", and the incorporation of both East and West cultures is evident throughout the school, classrooms, and curricula. In the main hallway, a beautiful, sprawling mural, entitled “We are Yinghua,” depicts Yinghua students playing outside, doing exercises and school work in their uniforms, with the Yinghua Academy building, Great Wall of China, and the Sculpture Garden in the background. The mural, which was funded through a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant, was a collaborative effort amongst more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and staff.
The presence of East and West is even more evident in the classrooms, which are adorned with brightly colored posters in Chinese script. In one classroom first graders are learning calligraphy, while in another sixth graders read authentic Chinese texts. Throughout the school students are engaged and participating.
Every year, students put on a Chinese New Year performance. All students participate in the elaborately costumed scenes, including Kung Fu choreography by third graders and a lion dance by fifth graders. In 2009, Yinghua formed a sister-school relationship with two schools in inner Mongolia, a province in northern China.
There are also capstone projects. Fifth grade students participate in a full day kindness camp, while seventh and eighth grade students have the opportunity to go on a two-week immersion learning trip, led by instructors, to a Mandarin-speaking country.
Yinghua is a full immersion school—meaning the lessons are not translated later in the day—in the belief that students gain a deeper cultural understanding and stronger skill in Mandarin, the dialect of Chinese that Yinghua teaches. According to Yinghua’s academic director, Luyi Lien, “Our goal is real bilingualism by eighth grade, which is near native.”
In order to accomplish the goal of bilingualism, students in K-1 receive all of their instruction in Chinese; grades 2-4 receive 80/20 instruction in Chinese and English; and grades 5-8 receive 50/50 instruction. Only five percent of Yinghua’s students are native Chinese speakers.
With Yinghua’s intensive Chinese immersion, one might expect their MCA scores and school rating to be low. However, Luyi Lien, Yinghua’s academic director and co-founder of the school, has spent a lot of time creating, accommodating and adapting the curriculum to ensure that students are not only obtaining a high-quality education, but also meeting the Minnesota Academic Standards. Yinghua’s curriculum also utilizes the Core Knowledge Sequence and Singapore Math.
The hard work has paid off. Since the Minnesota Department of Education implemented the MMR, Yinghua has consistently ranked in the top 15 percent of public schools in the state. Yinghua was recently recognized as a Reward School for the second year in a row.
Yinghua has been recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in Chinese immersion and for its academic success. In 2014, Yinghua was one of 5 schools, out of 800 worldwide, that received the Confucius Classroom Award. In 2015, Secretary Duncan recognized Yinghua as a National Blue Ribbon School, which was the first time in 15 years that a Minneapolis school received the honor.
One of Yinghua’s middle school students won the 2016 Midwest Regional Chinese Bridge Speech Contest. In October, the winning student traveled with a teacher to China to represent the Midwest at the 9th Global Chinese Bridge Speech Contest.
Even though Yinghua is only K-8, the school has worked hard to create opportunities for their students to continue their Chinese language education in high school. In the summer of 2014, Yinghua partnered with the Minnesota Online High School (MNOHS) to create free online courses for public high school students that may not have access to high-level Chinese courses at their high schools. According to Lu Yang, a fourth-year teacher at Yinghua, students spend about 6-8 hours a week on the course.
In March, Yinghua and Highland Park High School partnered to guarantee 25 Yinghua students admission to the high school. Highland Park also agreed to create new, higher-level Mandarin language classes that would challenge the students. The contract is for two years.
There are currently 216 Chinese immersion K-12 schools in the country, with 23 of them being chartered. While there is still a long way to go until the 1 Million Strong initiative is realized nationally, Yinghua is working hard to ensure that its students are prepared to be global citizens.
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All photos were taken by Krista Kaput