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February 23, 2007

School Choice

So we just found out this week that J got in to Yinghua Academy, a new Chinese immersion public charter school in St. Paul. We announced the news to our families, and my mother says, "So, that academy...on what basis did you choose that?" There's a little scorn her voice that reminds me of the time she told me she wouldn't eat at the Vietnamese restaurant on campus with me because she wanted real food. I say, "We chose it based on j's interests. He's excited to go there." She responds, "No, I think you chose it based on what the parents want, not what the child wants." Then, she makes it clear she doesn't want to argue about this as she changes the subject.

What do we want for J? When J was born, I told him I want one thing in life for him: to be happy. I still want that for him. I struggle every day to help him achieve a little happiness--I didn't realize that I actually had a rather tall order when I said I want him to be happy. It's not so easy, really. I thought I was making things simple. I thought I was telling him I don't want to envision my own future for him and then have him come up short. I don't have plans, expectations. I just want him to be happy, and by that I mean I want him to pursue what makes him satisfied--in friends, in toys, in books, in educational pursuits, in romantic interests (when he's older, of course). As his parent, I think my goal is to help him figure out what makes him happy--to give him choices and opportunities, guidance and limits, and feedback so that over time, he grows in his own self-awareness so that he can define for himself what makes him happy.

I don't think Chinese immersion education was in my vision of happiness for J. To be fair, I will admit that I wish I had been able to attend a language immersion school, but that's really not much more than a coincidence, when you consider all the factors that went in to our school decisions. No, when J was born, and I was wishing him happiness, I wasn't considering that...

1. We'd be living in MN, where charter schools began, and school choice really means you can attend virtually any school (as long as there's a space, and you can find your way there). On the other hand, urban education is a complex challenge, and many of the local elementary schools don't impress me much. There's too much sloganeering--igniting the flames of excellence; fostering independence, creativity, and confidence; promoting academic excellence, creativity, confidence, and global understanding; etc. How do all of these things really happen in underfunded districts with overcrowded classrooms and teachers who are paid too little and work too hard?

2. J is one of those gifted and talented boys. You know the ones--he can read, do math, and tell you facts about dinosaurs you didn't know were important. But, he doesn't listen to messages from his teachers much, and he forgets he can use his words to respond when another kid calls him names. Add him to the roster of an overcrowded classroom with an inexperienced teacher, and watch out, I say!

3. Before his 4th birthday, J would say one day, "I want to learn another language." Yep. We had sort of figured we'd just do that whole U.S. American thing--have him learn a language in high school like everyone else. Oh, maybe he'd have some opportunity before that, but that was a bridge we'd expect to cross later.

4. J would want to learn Chinese. The little language school we found when he was 4 offered two languages in their summer program: Spanish and Chinese. He chose Spanish to start, but it wasn't quite what he expected somehow. At the end of the summer, he said, "I know Spanish now. I want to learn Chinese." When he went to that Chinese class, he was mesmerized. He somehow improved from week to week, without our help (uh, we don't speak Chinese!). He was captivated by the teacher. He was motivated.

5. When the little Chinese school shut down, J stayed interested. So, when we heard about Yinghua Academy, we figured we'd better check it out. We've looked at other schools, and in fact, we had seriously considered other schools, but J really liked this one.

There are lots of considerations in sending a kid to a foreign language immersion school. How will we help him with his homework if we don't know Chinese? What if he doesn't understand everything? What will happen if there's no funding for Chinese high school by the time he's ready and he only knows content in Chinese? To that last one, I guess it's our shared responsibility with the school to make sure he keeps up on his English literacy.

A concern I've heard voiced by others is about whether Yinghua will promote US or Chinese values. I'm hard pressed to believe that a school that is the darling of our republican governor's administration is going to promote Chinese cultural values more than U.S. ones. In fact, E.D. Hirsch's core knowledge curriculum is at the center of what J will learn there. You can't get much more U.S.-centric than that! If it really were what we, the parents, wanted, it probably would have a different curriculum and different underlying political agendas. But, it's about what J wants, and I'm just glad that the details are all ones we can live with when we look at the big picture.

So, this week, J found out that Yinghua held a lottery for spots in their 2007-08 kindergarten, and they drew his name. He's been telling lots of folks, "They pulled my name out of their hat!! I'm gonna go to the Chinese school next year! I'm gonna learn things in Chinese, and learn things my mama and papa don't know!" I don't think that's a kid who thinks his parents chose what they wanted for him. Unless of course, they chose for him to be happy.

Posted by chri1010 at February 23, 2007 6:45 AM


When your Mum asked her question, what, in your opinion, was she really saying? I know you picked that school because you thought it was the best fit for your child, and I don't even know you. You are an adult and your child's parent. You don't have to defend or explain yourself to any one, even your mother. A vague smile and a "We really liked it" should be enough. You don't need you mother's approval. Good thing, cuz she is with-holding it from you. If this rings false for you, just ignore me. What do I know, right? Your son is lucky to have you for a mom.

Posted by: paulanancy at April 11, 2007 11:50 PM

Congratulations to you and J! Personally, I think J's making a terrific decision.

It can be a bit difficult dealing with parents. Your mom probably has all sorts of worries about J fitting into American society as he gets older. While you don't need to respond to her, you might reassure her on some of these.

My own mother has given me some resistance about my kids learning Japanese as their first language (and exclusively until about 4 yo). It bothered her not to be able to talk to her young grandchildren, and she'd been worried they'd never learn English. My six yo is now perfectly fluent in English, so she's relaxed a bit. Your mom's response was quite rude, but (hopefully) out of concern and worry than anything else.

Posted by: Sam at May 11, 2007 10:52 AM

Thanks so much for your encouragement! We're really feeling good about our decision, now a few months later. J is so excited for the fall--he's already practicing wearing his school uniform, and he's seriously thinking about what he wants his Chinese name to be.

My parents live in a really rural area, and school choice isn't even an option, so I've come to realize that they may need time to really understand our choice. I think time will tell much about their feelings about this great opportunity for J.

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