The second-graders stood silent in their Chinese costumes, with a drum beating, tap-tap-tap, bringing suspense to a morning performance at Hamline Elementary in St. Paul.
Suddenly, the students broke into graceful, sweeping motions, and a teacher leaned over to a visitor and said softly, yet excitedly, “Kung fu.”
The performers were students at Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy, and the occasion was a Chinese New Year celebration. But in some ways it was a coming-out party, too, at a growing Chinese immersion school that is letting people know: “We are here.”
Soon, Jie Ming, a K-3 school occupying a wing of Hamline Elementary, will have the chance to prove just how strong a competitor it is in a burgeoning field of language-immersion programs.
Jie Ming started in 2011-12 with just a kindergarten class, and has added a grade each year since, meaning those first kindergartners now are third-graders who will take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) exams for the first time this spring.
Principal Craig Anderson, citing the example of strong student performance at Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion charter school in Minneapolis, says: “I am very confident that we will be very pleased with the results.”
On Friday, parents in the St. Paul School District who are shopping for a school face a deadline for school-choice applications, most significantly, the declaration of a “first choice” for their children. As of last week, first-choice applications to Jie Ming had tripled from the same time a year ago, Anderson said. In 2015-16, the school will add fourth grade, and plans to boost the number of kindergarten classrooms from two to three.
“This year could be the first year of a waiting list,” Anderson said.
How many families apply to a school is critical to its leaders because St. Paul officials soon will decide how much funding each building will receive in 2015-16.
Jie Ming, thus far, has fared well. For the 2014-15 school year, the school was provided $7,581 per student in local/state funding, the most of any school in the district. Anderson said the resources are needed to build a curriculum and hire teachers in the absence of federal money that aided Jie Ming’s launch but later was discontinued.
In building its foundation, creativity has been key.
This year, two school leaders, assistant principal Bobbie Johnson and curriculum coordinator Julia Fung, nabbed an “inspired educator grant” from the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation to develop coursework involving ancient Chinese inventions. Recently, they met to discuss the new curriculum plan, and acknowledged then that touting the Jie Ming program — or anything, for that matter — did not come easy to them.
“We do not sell ourselves,” said Fung, who grew up in Taiwan. “We are diligent. We do our work.”
Johnson, who is Chinese and taught English in China before moving to the United States to study and to marry a “Johnson from Wisconsin,” agreed that trumpeting one’s performance “goes against our culture.”
Now, however, she said, “We feel it is time.”
From 2006 to 2013, the number of immersion programs in Minnesota jumped from 40 to 85, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.
Proponents say such programs help students compete in a global market. Districts and charter schools see them as a way to attract students, too. Jie Ming’s launch coincided with the 2011 rollout of a new district strategic plan that made enrollment growth a goal.
Jie Ming, which started with 19 students in another building, Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School, now has 112 students in its second year at Hamline Elementary. Students speak and write in Mandarin exclusively until the second grade, when they begin taking English reading courses with Hamline Elementary staff members, one of whom, Glynis Grostephan, the kung fu enthusiast, was worried initially that students might stumble.
“They rose to the occasion,” she said.
She attributes their success to three factors: “They’re very smart, very motivated and have a lot of parental support.”
Two parents, Stacey Paske, whose daughter, Sophia, was one of Jie Ming’s 2011 kindergarten trailblazers, and Rhonda Black, who has two children in the program, were at the school this week helping students prepare for the Chinese New Year performance. They say their children have embraced the language and culture.
Black’s third-grade son, Finnegan, critiques the kung fu technique of her second-grade daughter, Josie. Paske’s daughter loves knowing she has a language skill that her mother does not.
In December, Superintendent Valeria Silva told parents that the district will extend the Mandarin program into the secondary level at Highland Park Middle School in 2017 and then to Highland Park High School in 2020.
In the meantime, the curriculum writing continues. For Fung, that means fine-tuning lessons on Chinese inventions that she said will focus on papermaking, compasses and buoyancy.
Given the hands-on nature of the students’ work, she figures it is best to pass on a fourth: fireworks.