The YingHua School may be a Chinese language immersion school, but it’s not just for children of Chinese descent. A prime example is Kristin Epstein, the school’s director, whose own daughter is enrolled in the program. Epstein, who doesn’t speak Chinese herself, said she is jealous of the ease with which her daughter has picked up the language, while she herself struggled with teachers and textbooks for years without making much progress. And that’s the point of the school.
Only about 30 percent of the school’s 70 students speak Chinese at home. The rest speak English, Spanish, Turkish, or sometimes multiple languages. The parents who send their young children to YingHua are trying to give their children all of the advantages that come with being bilingual.
“Immersion is the perfect way to learn a second language,” Epstein said.
The nonprofit preschool to grade five school, which was founded nine years ago, takes advantage of the innate ability of young children to learn language. The older a child is, the more difficult it is to pick up phonemes — the precise sounds that make up speech. As Epstein explains, if someone tries to learn a foreign language when they are older, they will always have an accent no matter how good they are, because they can’t even hear the subtle difference in speech sounds that native speakers pick up on.
That’s why, a decade ago, Epstein decided to send both of her daughters to a Chinese-language immersion school.
“I thought we might as well pick the hardest one in the world to learn,” she said. “Later she can learn French or Spanish or whatever the easy ones are.”
The path to making that goal a reality turned out to be quite a twisted one. In the end, only her youngest daughter, Madeline, was young enough to enroll in immersion classes. Now, however, the YingHua school is thriving and expanding. For the first nine years of its existence, it was housed in a church on River Road. Now it has moved into a historic schoolhouse and expanded to include middle school.
“We were literally bursting at the seams,” Epstein said. “For years I didn’t even have an office. We used every single space as a classroom.”
A decade ago, Epstein never thought she would one day be the director of a Chinese immersion school. She didn’t speak Chinese (and still doesn’t) and didn’t have a background in education. She grew up in Atlanta, where her father was an atmospheric scientist and her mother was a homemaker. She met her husband John, an ophthalmologist, when both were studying at Princeton. She earned an environmental engineering degree there, and later, a master’s in engineering at Johns Hopkins, and worked as an engineer for 10 years before becoming a homemaker herself.
About eight years ago, Epstein was living in West Windsor with her two young daughters, Isabella and Madeline. She learned that Bonnie Liao, the founder of YingHua, was trying to start a Mandarin language immersion charter school in Plainsboro or South Brunswick. Epstein volunteered to be on the board of the proposed institution, called the Princeton International Academy Charter School. The new school was approved by the state Board of Education, but it became deadlocked in battles with local school districts and zoning boards.
“Our founder, Bonnie Liao, got the idea to start a public Chinese language public school like the ones being done in other states,” Epstein recalled. “She thought we could take the great lessons learned there and make immersion learning publicly available for everyone. I had heard about it and at that point, I lived in West Windsor, which was going to be one of the sending districts to the school.” Princeton and South Brunswick were also to be included.
Epstein thought the school was a “done deal” since it had been approved by the state, and signed both of her daughters up for the upcoming class. But the charter school encountered fierce opposition and packed public hearings when it came time to get approval for the actual school building. Two separate sites, St. Joseph’s Seminary on Mapleton Road in Plainsboro and a commercial building in South Brunswick, fell through. The hearings dragged on for years.
The entire process was a strange sort of limbo for Epstein, whose daughters were becoming too old to learn Chinese like native speakers. “I spent two years as a school board member of a school that didn’t exist,” Epstein said.
In 2012 Epstein decided instead to enroll them at YingHua, which, unlike the charter school, charged tuition, but which had the benefit of actually existing. By then her older daughter, Isabella, was in fourth grade, which made her too old for the intensive immersion program at YingHua. “It would be like social suicide,” Epstein said, so she went to public schools instead. Her younger daughter, Madeline, a second-grader, was barely young enough for the program.
At the same time, Epstein joined YingHua as director of development. In 2013 she was promoted to director of the school. She is currently leading the school through a major move. The school is relocating from quarters so cramped that Epstein had to make phone calls and do paperwork while sitting in the church sanctuary. Its new layout is in a historic schoolhouse on Laurel Avenue built in 1920 and expanded at some point in the 1950s. The building is owned by Franklin Township and had been used as a public school until about 1999. After that it was a Hebrew school for a few years, but then left derelict.
The Tuchman Foundation overhauled the 13-classroom building to bring it up to modern standards while maintaining its historical appearance, with its main use as the site of the YingHua school in mind. The building was in bad shape when the renovations began.
“It had been basically sitting here vacant for the last 15 years, with plywood on the windows,” Epstein said. The roof leaked and there were inches of water in some of the classrooms. “A mossy meadow was growing in the old part of the building underneath the skylight. It was in complete disrepair and was a hazard and an eyesore.”
Franklin Township leased the building to the Tuchman Foundation, which sublets it to YingHua. As part of the deal, there is a room with a separate entrance available to community groups for meetings.
The school is a bit of a quirky structure. The oldest part consists of two main stories. The upper floor, where the main entrance is, is a large open area where there was once a stage. As part of the renovation, part of the ceiling was blown out to expose the wood beams supporting the roof, emphasizing the historic nature of the building. YingHua will use this space as a gym. Below this, partially underground, is a space that was once a cafeteria, but which YingHua is using as an art room and science lab.
The students will eat lunch in the classrooms, and YingHua doesn’t prepare meals. It will just have a small kitchen for cooking classes. “A cafeteria is a waste of space,” Epstein said. “It’s a room you only use once a day.”
Because of its status as a historical landmark, no changes could be made to alter the outside appearance of the building. However, changes were made on the inside, including replacing a gigantic ancient boiler with a modern HVAC system, and subdividing the larger classrooms into smaller rooms suited for the 10-student classes at YingHua. The clash of these two design goals led to walls being constructed in the middle of windows.
All the extra space will allow the school to add grades as its current students enter middle school, all the way up to eighth grade. The curriculum covers the same subjects as would a public school, and the entire operation is accredited by the Mid States Association, an independent group that sets standards and inspects private schools.
The Mid States Association fills a gap that the government leaves open in New Jersey. “There is actually no oversight of private schools whatsoever,” Epstein said. “We could literally be running a cult and as long as we could afford to operate, we could do whatever we want. No one checks on the curriculum or documents it, and that’s quite scary.”
Epstein said many of the YingHua teachers have master’s or doctorate degrees in the subjects they are teaching. The faculty come from varied backgrounds, much like the students at the school, depending on the subjects that they teach.
At younger grade levels, all instruction is in Chinese, and in the preschool grades, kids can be heard using “Chinglish,” mixing the two languages as they add words to their vocabularies. Gradually, more English language classes are added to the curriculum until by fifth grade, it’s about a 50-50 mix. Subjects like American history are taught in English. Recently, the students paid a visit to a George Washington impersonator. “We’re not going to ask him to use Chinese,” Epstein said.
One of the reasons Epstein became so enthusiastic about bilingual education was research showing that it has beneficial effects on the brain. “They have later onset of Alzheimer’s, they have more resources, and their brains are more flexible,” she said.
Although Epstein never planned it out that way, having one daughter in public schools and another in a bilingual school has proven to be a kind of not-especially-scientific experiment on the effects of immersion learning, one with a tiny sample size. Her older daughter, now in seventh grade, is a sort of “control group” not exposed to immersion education, while her fifth-grader is the “experiment” group. She has noticed clear differences between the two, even in mathematics.
“It opens your mind to more concepts,” Epstein said. For example, in Chinese, fractions are taught differently. In the Western system, they are written as a part out of a whole, for example, 1/4 means one out of four parts. In China, it is reversed: 4/1, or four parts of one.
Counting in Chinese is more intuitive for young children to learn. For example, the number 17 is “ten seven” in Chinese, and 27 is “two ten seven.”
As a result, Epstein said her younger daughter has found math easier to understand than her older daughter, who is nevertheless enrolled in high-level math classes.
That’s not to say that English subjects are neglected. Shakespeare is part of the curriculum, and the “Ying” part of “YingHua” actually means English in Chinese. Epstein said that the hardest group to sell on the benefits of bilingual learning are Chinese parents, who want their children to have an all-English environment at school.
In the Chinese immigrant community, YingHua competes with weekend programs that are popular among parents who want their children to learn Chinese. Before YingHua began adding additional grades, many of its students continued their Mandarin lessons at weekend programs. But Epstein said that kids really need to get up to an eighth-grade level of fluency in Chinese in order to be able to study the language on their own; otherwise their ability could stagnate or even slip away.
“The students who go to weekend school are starting to resent Chinese now because it’s work, and they don’t want extra work. It’s just negative and disheartening to see that happen,” Epstein said. In immersion, the Chinese is introduced seamlessly so it doesn’t feel like a burden to the student.
Part of the reason for the difficulty of making the switch is the Chinese character system. Unlike the phonetic alphabet of English, the Chinese writing system does not correspond with the sounds of the spoken language. Epstein said it’s nearly impossible to study on your own.
It’s too early to see the long-term success of the YingHua program. Its oldest graduates are only in their early teens. However, Epstein said the data show good results from bilingual education, with students from other Chinese immersion schools scoring well on standardized tests, including English.
Tuition at the nonprofit school is around $16,500 depending on grade level, which is lower than other Princeton-area schools like Stuart Country Day School and Princeton Day School, which are in the upper $20,000 range.
Epstein believes that anyone who can speak both Chinese and English will have a large advantage in the workforce of the future, with more Chinese companies setting up shop in the U.S. and vice versa. She said her youngest daughter wants to study science in college, and that if she does, she will have the advantage of being able to read Chinese research in addition to that published in English. “That will open the door to some of the incredible science going on in China,” she said. “It just opens up that exchange of ideas when people are speaking a common language.”
YingHua International School, 25 Laurel Avenue, Kingston 08528. 609-375-8015. Kristin Epstein, director. www.yhis.org.