A sign in the English immersion portion of the school.
By Elizabeth Weise
TAIPEI, Taiwan – Private schools are a rarity in Taiwan, and the number of schools that offer both English and Mandarin immersion in this island nation can be counted on one hand. I had the pleasure of touring one of the most academically rigorous of them this spring as a guest of its chair, Yvette Chiang.
Chingshin Elementary and Middle School （靜心中小學）has a long and august history. The elementary school was founded in 1956 by General Chiang Wei-Kuo. He was the adopted son of General Chiang Kai-shek, one of the founders of Taiwan. In 1968 he expanded the school to middle school, which in Taiwan goes through ninth grade. His wife, Shi Ching Yi, founded the school’s Kindergarten first in 1951. After her death he expanded the school still further.
The school opened just two years after the Kuomintang moved over two million people from mainland China to Taiwan. General Chiang wanted it to “ease the financial burden of military and public service families with young children” as well as to create a school that was “at the forefront of education,” according to the website.
The bus and city practice room.
Fast forward 64 years and the school has become a remarkable educational institution that offers a deep and thorough-going bilingual program. While there are multiple international schools in Taiwan that offer an English (or French or German or Japanese) education, and most of those teach Chinese, very few actually do immersion in both languages the way we understand it in the United States.
Chingshin is a Kindergarten through middle school program. The Kindergarten has 410 students, the elementary school 1,512 and the middle school 798, for a total of slightly more than 2,700 students. The school has 220 full time staff, 28 of whom are foreign teachers who instruct in English as well as 19 local teachers who teach in English.
The school itself is an attractive group of connected multi-story buildings that to the U.S. eye look like an office complex. However this is the normal configuration for schools in large cities in Asia, where land is expensive. The campus has undergone major renovations in the past decades. The school has torn down and rebuilt two-thirds of its campus, replacing older buildings with new ones in addition to a down-to-the-studs renovation of its front building.
School is also different in Taiwan in that class sizes are much larger than we are used to. At Chingshin the average is 42 students per class, with three teachers in each classroom.
Students also spend a lot more time in school that do students in the United States. School runs daily from 7:30 to 4:10 for elementary school students and from 7:30 to 5:50 for middle school students. In ninth grade, when students are studying for the all-important high school entrance examination, classes and study sessions extend to 9:00 each night.
Chingshin is exploring opening a high school program in the next two years, which will allow students to continue their bilingual education throughout their entire school career.
For me, the highlight of my tour was learning about the school’s bilingual track, which half of the students are enrolled in.
“We need to take our Taiwanese culture and mix it with international culture to create something new and innovative,” was how Chiang put it as she toured me through the beautiful building and immaculate classrooms and soaring gymnasiums and music rooms. I especially loved a floor devoted to mock-ups of local buses, cross walks and other city elements, used to teach the youngest students how to safely maneuver through their city of 2.6 million.
For the 1,300 or so student in the immersion program, life in Kindergarten begins in English—they spend 100% of their day being taught in the language, although the vast majority speak Mandarin or Taiwanese at home. This is similar to several programs in the States which begin with 100% Mandarin and slowly add English.
At Chingshin, in first and second grades students switch to 60% of the day in English, 40% in Mandarin. By third grade, classes are 50% in English and 50% in Mandarin.
In grade school, students study math, English, social studies, science, Art, PE and health. They take math in both English and Chinese, both to cement the concepts and to ensure that they have the vocabulary in both languages.
The English textbook series is one many public school families in the U.S. will recognize, it’s the Treasures series by McGraw Hill. The school is in the midst of making changes to its math curriculum, which will be incorporated this fall. It will switch from the Singapore math program and instead translate the Taiwanese national math textbooks into English. “We are doing this because Singapore teaches math very differently, and we find it’ll be a better fit to translate the Taiwan text books instead,” said Su Wei Wang, the head of the English department.
Tests for their English subjects are all taken in English. This is in part to ensure that the students have mastered the vocabulary as well as the material, but also because many families hope that their children will go on to study in an English-speaking country, so being able to pass tests in English is a highly useful skill.
The tuition for a year at the school is about $4,000 U.S., on par with most private schools in the capital. However the English immersion strand is almost double that, $8,000 U.S.. That’s to pay for the extra teachers, training and materials needed in the immersion strand.
The school overall is extremely difficult to get into. There are 51 slots open each year for incoming Kindergarteners. For the 2015-2016 school year, 468 families applied. The lucky families who get a slot are chosen by lottery.
Of course many of our Mandarin immersion programs in the States also allocate seats for incoming Kindergarteners by lottery. However in Taiwan the lottery takes place in public, at the school, with slips of paper being drawn from a large bin while all the families who want a spot gather to watch. This is to ensure that the entire system is fair and so that no one questions whether any type of favoritism might have taken place. While grueling (especially for staff, I imagine), a system like that would certainly quell grumbling.
The school also boasts a very strong music program, with several orchestras and classes available to all students. There’s also an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a large library and outdoor play space.
All told, Chingshin is a beautiful, robust school. I had the chance to look at some of the students’ written work in English and it’s very impressive, quite on par with what you’d find at a similar grade level in the United States. And that while the students are doing all the same work required to do well on Taiwan’s notoriously competitive and demanding national exams. It’s a fine program and one that several Mandarin immersion programs in the United States have toured as a model.