Washington Yuying Public Charter School
By Elizabeth Weise
Washington YuYing is a Pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade Mandarin immersion charter school in Washington D.C. The school has four classes per grade in PreK, three in K, two in 1st and 2nd and one for 3rd-5th. They will be adding 6th grade next year. It began with 130 students in 2008 and in 2012-2013 had approximately 600. It is thus far expanded through fifth grade and will continue until it reaches eight grade in 2015. YuYing also offers a Mandarin immersion preschool program for children beginning at age three.
The school is in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate school. Currently it has a Primary Years Program in elementary school. That is an “an international, transdisciplinary curricular framework designed by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) to foster the development of the whole child,” according to the school’s web site. The YuYing school day is an hour longer than local public schools, from 8:30 to 3:30, allowing it more time to work with students. They also have a half-day every Friday to use for teacher planning and staff development.
The school’s name, 育英，Yùyīng, means nurturing excellence. It is used with the permission of a groundbreaking girls school founded in 1911 in Beijing that was established by a former Imperial Lady-in-Waiting, Madame Tzen-Kuei Wang. Her school offered classroom education at a time when the centuries-old tutorial system was still the norm in China. The school was a powerful force for educational change in China. Because it has the same name as the Beijing school, it’s called Washington YuYing to distinguish them.
The school uses simplified characters and pinyin is introduced in third grade.
The decision to make it a public charter school was taken to allow it to create a unique focus on Mandarin immersion and to build a curriculum and environment that wasn’t possible within the constraints of the DC public school system. Charter schools are independently operated public schools that are open to all District residents, regardless of their neighborhood, socioeconomic status, academic achievement, or ethnicity. There are no admission tests or tuition fees.
Many of YuYing’s teachers are from local universities. There are also some from China. Most, if not all. of the teachers are have an H1B visa. The school is located at 220 Taylor Street NE.in Washington D.C. in a beautifully renovated former seminary. Students come to the school from all eight wards of the District. Parents have created a network of chartered buses to bring students to school from around the city.
The student body is approximately 47% African-American, 30% white, 18% Asian. While the number of Asians might seem low to some schools, it’s actually very high for a Washington D.C. school, which on average have only 9% Asian students. There is also a small Latino population. Overall the families are solidly middle class. The school is very popular among District families.
The Head of School Maquita Alexander, is a former reading specialist and administrator who does not speak Chinese, but is “learning it now” as she says. Her three children attend the school. “Not only do they learn Mandarin, but their English is solid. They get things at this school that I couldn’t find in public schools and couldn’t afford in private,” she says of the school.
Because she does not speak Chinese, she considers it “critical” that the school has both a Chinese-speaking administrator and a Chinese Curriculum Consultant. The program consultant is Elizabeth Hardage, a fluent speaker of Mandarin who taught in China and now consults for several Mandarin immersion schools in the United States. “We needed someone who could solely advocate for Chinese,” says Alexander. “Elizabeth does that.” Having a consultant also allows the Chinese teacher to teach, while Hardage works on lesson plans, curriculum and provides professional development, she says.
Hardage also works with teachers to “up their game,” as she says. For example, Pearl You, the Chinese Program Coordinator, might videotape a class and send it to Elizabeth. They watch it together and decide how best to help to help the teacher or the students. The school also focuses on leveraging its resources. For example, flash cards are common to all classes in a grade, so they only have to be made up once. There are also lots of games and other flash card activities posted on the parent portal, so parents can work with their kids at home.
The first years of the program were somewhat rocky, as with many new programs schools. But after two years “it suddenly clicked,” says Alexander, and parents across D.C. began clamoring to send their children there. Today it is extremely popular and very difficult to get into. In the 2011-2012 school year there were 698 applications for 47 Kindergarten slots. Students who are Mandarin-proficient may test in in upper grades.
The average class has 15 students. “Our teachers voted to have small class size rather than larger classes with a classroom aide,” says Alexander.
YuYing uses an uncommon immersion model that provides equal instructional time in each language. One week a given class has classes in Chinese on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and in English on Tuesday and Thursday. The next week they have English on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Chinese on Tuesday and Thursday. This gives them 50% time in both languages.
“Our goal is to have students perform at the Advanced level upon graduating high-school and be able to take college level course in Chinese,” said Hardage.
The model allows Mandarin-speaking teachers to teach only in Mandarin and English-speaking teachers to teach only in English. Students get a double-dose of material in both languages.
Just as schools in Asia are beginning to do, YuYing follows a Read-First, Write-Later model. Students must be able to read, pronounce and recognize all characters but are only required to be able to write some of them. “We make the distinction between handwriting and writing,” is how Hardage puts it. For the ones they don’t have to be able to write out, they use computers to write (as is common in China now). This allows students to more quickly ramp up their reading ability while still maintaining a strong link to written Chinese.
Families at YuYing are typically very engaged in their children’s education, sometimes too much so, says principal Alexander. “They get stressed out because they can’t help their kids with homework.” To lower those stress levels, the school has build a strong infrastructure of support for non-Chinese speaking families. This includes lots of education for parents on how immersion works and a series of graded-readers that go home with students each week, tied to their current Chinese reading level. These books are also available on the school’s parent website, so students can listen to them be read aloud. “This let’s parents be engaged,” Alexander says.
One issue the school, like all Mandarin immersion schools, has struggled with is helping students who fall behind. For some students the pace of an Mandarin immersion classroom can be too much. Students who fall two years behind in either English or Chinese are moved to the school’s small English track, where all classes are in English but a daily 45 minute class in Mandarin is offered. “That way they can stay with their peers, but they’re not in the Mandarin immersion program,” says Alexander. This gives these students, some of whom have Individualized Education Program or IEPs, an education suited to their needs while not requiring that the Mandarin classes become too simplistic for the bulk of students.
YuYing is very focused on setting clear goals for the school, for teachers and for students and then testing and assessing constantly to see what they’ve mastered and what they still need work on. “We have to be very clear on how to assess those targets and then be very clear on how to get students to move in the right direction to meet those targets,” says Hardage.
The school also makes clear to parents that choosing Mandarin immersion is not something to be done lightly. “They’re taking on a responsibility themselves, for a lot of years. In some schools you can leave your kid at the school house door and they’ll be fine. But you cannot do that in a Chinese immersion program. You’re singing your whole family up for immersion – for nine years!” she says.
The school asks that all parents dedicate 30 minutes a night to doing something related to their child’s Chinese studies. This is in addition to homework. It can be playing games with flash cards, it can be watching a Chinese cartoon or TV show, it can be listening to a book read aloud or on the computer. “It just has to be something every single day for 30 minutes,” says Hardage. Yes, “they’re in an immersion program, but they’re in school only 6 hours a day and only half that is in Chinese.”
Middle and High School
YuYing recently got is charter approved to continue thorugh 12th grade. For middle and high school, Yu Ying plans to be the lead school in an international charter school that will include other language immersion charter schools which currently only go to fifth grade.
The new school to be created in Delano Hall, a 1933 nurses residence at the former Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. The current plan, still being worked out, might include these schools to create a combined language immersion middle-high school:
- Latin American Montessori Bilingual charter school, Spanish/English
- Mundo Verde Bilingual, which offers Spanish/English
- Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom School, English/French and English/Spanish
- Washington Latin Public Charter School
Together, the schools would form a cooperative middle and high school that could eventually enroll about 1,000 students.