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Vol. LXV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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New Location and Expanded Programs At the Yinghua International School

Anne Levin

People visiting the Yinghua International School for the first time often ask the same question: Why are so many of the students not Chinese?

“We hear that often,” says Joy Zhao, former director and current academic consultant for the five-year-old school that immerses its 29 young pupils in Mandarin Chinese. “When new parents come, they are surprised to see the diversity.” Indeed, on a recent September morning, there are more than a few non-Asians among the three-year-olds working intently on art projects. They chatter in Chinese as they cut out shapes from paper plates, throwing in the occasional English phrase.

The school has recently relocated from Lawrenceville to Princeton Church of Christ on River Road (former headquarters of the Wilberforce School, which has moved to the Princeton Center for Arts and Education in Plainsboro). With expanded space at their disposal, Ms. Zhao and director Natalie Ye have plans for an expanded after-school program and look forward to starting a Chinese language “Mommy and Me” in the near future.

The academy was originally known as Yinghua Day School. To reflect the diversity of its student body, the name was changed two years ago to Yinghua International School. Many of the families who send their children to Yinghua are from Princeton University. Children come from as far north as Westfield and as far south as Delaware. Some are from Chinese families; others have been adopted from China. But many have no direct, cultural connection. They are sent to the school because their parents believe that in an increasingly global society, fluency in Chinese is an asset.

“They see the importance of being bilingual today,” says Ms. Zhao. “There are a few choices out there to cultivate real fluency, and immersion is really the way to go. These parents understand that for true development of bilingual fluency, their children need to start a language that is so different from English.”

The curriculum followed by the school is a “full immersion model,” says Ms. Zhao. “When the kids join at age three, they start learning language, social studies, science, music, art, and other subjects, all in Chinese. So they learn about the language and through the language.”

Chinese is a tonal language with a totally different written system from English, French, Italian, Spanish, or German. “When they learn Chinese, they carve out new neural paths,” says Ms. Ye. “The children learn to be more creative.”

When students reach first grade, the ratio of Chinese/English changes to 85/15. “Slowly, they get more and more English until fifth grade, when it is 50/50,” Ms. Zhao adds. The school currently goes through first grade, having downsized from its previous third grade range. The plan is to eventually have students through fifth grade. But the after-school program accepts students from other schools through sixth grade. Second grade will be offered next year.

Along with the emphasis on immersion is a focus on inquiry “which goes hand in hand with immersion,” says Ms. Zhao. “When a child is in a language that is foreign to them, they have to ask questions. And when they start young, it’s easier. They have to figure things out on their own. Bilingual kids are trained to pick up more cues than just language. As adults, we rely so heavily on language, but kids are different.”

The school’s student body is increasingly non-Chinese. “There are more and more non-Chinese speakers starting with us, and that’s the way it should be,” says Ms. Ye. “It reflects the demographic. Most of our kids are from non-Chinese-speaking families.”

The school holds a book fair each year and endeavors to help parents speak Chinese to their children at home. The after-school program, geared to children who attend other schools and want to learn Chinese language and culture, includes two main activities each day. Martial arts, cooking, board games, and other activities are on the schedule, delivered in Chinese.

Those who have studied at Yinghua and moved on to other schools have done well, reflecting the fluency, discipline, and creativity they developed at Yinghua. “Our curriculum gives them the tools to excel,” says Ms. Zhao. “And when they go elsewhere, they do well.”

The Yinghua International School is an independent, private school and should not be confused with the Princeton International Academy Charter School, which proposes to offer Mandarin language immersion.

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