Oregon’s largest Mandarin-language preschool: Chinese immigrants preserve culture through early education

In her preschool class at Goodtime Chinese School, Caroline Wang and her classmates perform the children’s song along with movement, “头 肩膀 膝盖 , 膝盖 脚. » Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

The 4-year-old girl’s dazzling sneakers flash pink every time she jumps.

In choosing a kindergarten, Caroline’s father, Andrew Wang, said he was not just looking for full-time childcare while he and his wife worked, but somewhere his daughter could receive the Chinese language. and the cultural education he said he couldn’t give her. .

Caroline’s mother is white and grew up in a small town in East Texas, and Wang is a first-generation Chinese-American raised in Houston. Growing up, he learned Mandarin by listening to his parents and uncle talk to each other and living in Taiwan when his father worked there for two years. But his parents always spoke to him in English and enrolled him in English-speaking schools.

“I thought our mother was afraid that we wouldn’t assimilate or have an accent,” Wang said.

The parents chose Goodtime Chinese School, which has the largest Chinese preschool in Oregon and is just a five-minute drive from the family home in the Bethany neighborhood. Census data identified this section of unincorporated Washington County as having Oregon’s largest and most concentrated population of people who trace their ancestry to Asia, including many immigrants from China.

Originally founded as a stand-alone preschool, Goodtime has expanded to include K-5 and after-school services. Housed in two large beige buildings opposite each other, the school has 25 teachers and 200 students, including 60 in kindergarten. Instruction time is divided equally into English and Mandarin, the most widely spoken Chinese language in the world, spoken by more than a billion people.

舒一兵, principal and founder of the school, opened the school in 2009, two years after he and his wife immigrated from Beijing to the United States. The 57-year-old administrator is 6ft tall, sporting an Adidas track jacket and a mop of white hair. With hands clasped behind him, the principal walks the halls of the school and visits the classrooms between meetings and administrative tasks. His students call him 大老爷, or grandfather.

舒, whose parents were both teachers, studied Chinese language education for non-native speakers at the highly regarded Beijing Language and Culture University and later earned a master’s degree in ethnic studies. He said he moved to Portland hoping to open a school free from Chinese government bureaucracy and where parents need institutions that give their Chinese-American children a fair introduction to a trait identity. of union.

His experiences as a principal leave him wishing that state officials would offer more support to multilingual preschools and, therefore, to the minority communities that rely on their services.

Andrew Wang said that although Goodtime Chinese School has provided his daughter, Caroline Wang, with a solid bilingual preschool education, he will likely enroll the 4-year-old in public kindergarten next year due to school costs. private school. The challenge will be to find another way for Caroline to learn Chinese language and culture. Caroline’s friend and classmate Tiberius Sun, right, will also attend a state school that operates only in English next year, her mother said. Mark Graves / The Oregonian

In choosing a school for Caroline, her 44-year-old father acted against a once-common sentiment that contributed to her parents’ decision to only teach her English – that learning two languages ​​at once can confuse children or delay their learning. This outdated notion has since been superseded by extensive research that becoming bilingual in childhood enhances cognitive development, particularly the ability to focus and think about different concepts simultaneously.

As a result, Caroline’s Mandarin is almost better than her father’s. Wang told kindergarten principal 李玲 that when he and his daughter passed a Mandarin-speaking family, the 4-year-old sometimes translated what she heard to him.

“I’m thrilled at the idea of ​​Caroline speaking Chinese with my parents,” he said. “Seeing her do something that I couldn’t do is exciting.”

This month’s vocabulary topics for preschoolers are fruits and body parts. Each of the preschool classrooms is named after a sea animal this year, and in the Starfish classroom, two teachers help 10 wriggling toddlers glue cutouts of facial features onto a paper face while explaining the eyes, nose, mouth and ears in Mandarin.

李 knelt down next to 2½-year-old Kristina Guan and pulled her slightly inward. It’s the child’s first month of kindergarten.

Her mother, 郑佳欣, said she liked the teachers at Goodtime. They care deeply about the students, she said, and know how to discipline when necessary.

郑 and her husband’s immigration story is similar to that of many Goodtime parents – they immigrated to the United States from mainland China for higher education, met, and later moved to the West Coast where they built their career and their family.

郑, an accountant, said she plans to keep her children at Goodtime for as long as she and her husband can afford (tuition for kindergarten is $950/month). Learning Mandarin is about preserving identity, she said. Language binds a community and enables the sharing of traditions and the creation and transmission of history. Fluency in Chinese allows Kristina and her brother, Ryan, to immerse themselves in cultural activities and communicate with their grandparents in China and, when they are older, will likely allow them to have complex conversations. with their parents, who are more comfortable in Mandarin.

Goodtime Chinese School

During her first weeks of kindergarten, Kristina Guan, left, cried in the morning before going to school, her mother said, unless her brother, a kindergarten student at Goodtime, held her hand and does not accompany him into the classroom. But her mother 郑佳欣 said her daughter liked her new school. “Every day when she comes home, she seems really happy.”
Mark Graves / The Oregonian

On a recent school day, 李 moved from class to class, taking over a class when the teacher needed to take a child to the bathroom or checking on a running toddler. and fell. A teacher called in sick this week, so 李 was busier than usual. The shortage of teachers is a national problem which particularly affects bilingual schools.

“It’s hard to find qualified teachers,” 舒 said. “We are looking for people who not only can speak Chinese or English, but who can teach it.”

Running a Chinese-medium preschool program presents other challenges, the director said. He said Oregon’s Division of Early Learning could do more to reduce the language barrier between the state and multilingual early education providers. He and his administrative staff sometimes have trouble understanding and correctly completing agency documents and forms, which are all in English, he said. 舒 said that when Goodtime applied for a grant from the expanded program State’s Preschool Promise, a division representative called the school to clarify an issue with their claim. The two struggled to understand each other, he said.

“Communication issues prevent us from understanding state processes and, in turn, from receiving government support,” 舒 said. “But our children are also Americans and cannot be forgotten.”

Marion Suitor Barnes, director of communications and outreach for the Division of Early Learning, defended her agency as a “leader in language equity, including the Preschool Promise application process.” “.

All Preschool Promise grant applications and agreements were available in Spanish and English, and the agency is “developing a protocol to translate grant agreements and future applications” into other languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian. , she wrote. A day after The Oregonian/OregonLive asked their agency about Goodtime’s claims that the division had failed to remove communication barriers, an agency employee called 舒 and offered to provide a translator. in Mandarin for the next call between the agency and the Chinese kindergarten.

Suitor Barnes said nearly 10% of Preschool Promise recipients this year are offering education in a language other than English or Spanish, including Arabic, Farsi, Tagalog, French, Somali and Mandarin. Goodtime Chinese School learned on Wednesday that they were one of them.

After almost a day of taking care of the children, 李 sits down in the office and eats an apple. When she immigrated to the United States in 2010, she had studied and spent decades working in early childhood education. Exhausted, she took a break from her early studies and worked in retail for two years, until a mutual friend who suddenly needed a new nanny hired her. The mother told her she was supposed to work with children.

李 recalled the kid who joined Goodtime’s summer program in July, speaking almost no Mandarin and, by August, spouting out full sentences. “You can’t get the same joy from shaping a life in any other profession.”

Rose Wong covers early childhood education for The Oregonian/OregonLive. Contact her at [email protected]call her at 971-666-7224 or follow her @rosebwong

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