While Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, it is one of the most segregated in California’s Bay Area. In 2010, Yu Ming Charter School was founded against this backdrop as California’s first Mandarin immersion charter school. It is public, non-profit, and tuition free, and was established with the goal of becoming an intentionally diverse school that would make Mandarin immersion accessible for students from a wide range of backgrounds. Today, the school is thriving and enrolls over 550 students from kindergarten through 8th grade.
But Sue Park, Yu Ming’s head of school, explains that the goal of intentional diversity was initially difficult to achieve. Half of the school’s seats were saved for native speakers of Mandarin, attracting a large number of Mandarin-speaking families, as well as other, English-dominant families with the resources to afford to send their children to private Mandarin immersion preschool. These dynamics led to a lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity: initially, only about 6 percent of the school’s students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL).
This problem is not uncommon in multilingual schools. Since dual-language immersion programs have academic and social benefits for both English learners and English speakers, schools offering these programs often attract significant attention from a wide range of families. When students begin learning another language at a young age, it can lead to
increased cognitive flexibility and development, improved literacy skills that are reflected on standardized tests, and, higher ACT or SAT scores; it can also make it easier for English learners to acquire fluency in English. Additionally, it can help students of all backgrounds develop better conflict resolution skills and more comfort with multicultural environments. Learning Mandarin or another tonal language can lead students to develop more accurate hearing, interpretation of sounds, and even musical ability.
As dual-language programs have gained popularity,
some critics warn that the model tends to attract English-dominant families, often those that are White and privileged, who crowd out other students—particularly students who are learning English. Furthermore, the overrepresentation of English-speaking students can even threaten the ability of dual-language programs to maintain the balance of native speakers of each language that makes the model maximally effective. Despite this common phenomenon, dual-language immersion has considerable potential as a tool to create academically rigorous and inclusive integrated schools.
The overrepresentation of English-speaking students can even threaten the ability of dual-language programs to maintain the balance of native speakers of each language that makes the model maximally effective.
Since its founding, Yu Ming has implemented multiple strategies to deliver on the potential of its dual-language model. Over time, it has come a long way towards creating a student body that realizes the original vision for the school.
Yu Ming was founded on the
core belief that learning alongside diverse peers allows students to develop creativity, deeper learning, and better problem-solving skills, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the school’s graduates are able to thrive in and positively contribute to an increasingly global, multicultural society. Currently, Yu Ming’s student body represents fifty-five zip codes, twenty-three cities, and four counties; 48 percent of the students are Asian, 9 percent are Black, 1 percent is Filipino, 7 percent are Latinx, 9 percent are White, and 26 percent are multi-racial.
However, the school is still working to increase its demographic diversity through holistic changes to recruitment, the school’s enrollment mechanism, and student retention. Since its founding, Yu Ming has conducted targeted outreach to recruit low-income families, including low-income Mandarin speakers, to the school. In 2016, the school also changed its enrollment formula to include a 20-percent categorical preference for FRPL-eligible students, a measure of students’ socioeconomic status. This adjustment ensures more socioeconomic diversity, which has value in itself, and also often translates into greater racial diversity.
Over the last few years, the school has made additional efforts to enhance the school’s diversity. They have increased enrollment, initially expanding from two kindergarten classes to three; they recently doubled the number of kindergarten classes for the fall of 2021 to six. Doing so has allowed the school to increase their FRPL preference to 30 percent for incoming classes, which has brought the enrollment of low-income students to 16.9 percent schoolwide—a 270 percent increase since the school’s founding—and 28 percent in the 2020–21 kindergarten class. By expanding its enrollment and FRPL preference in tandem, Yu Ming is on track to continue to see increases in socioeconomic and racial diversity over time. The school estimates that the incoming kindergarten class for 2021–2 will include at least 35 percent FRPL students.
The school also shifted its bilingual instructional model, ceasing to reserve seats for Mandarin-fluent students. Because the school uses a full-immersion model—for example, 85 percent of instructional time in the lower elementary grades is in Mandarin—non-Mandarin-speaking students are still able to develop high levels of fluency. Currently, about one-third of incoming Yu Ming students are fluent in Mandarin, so speakers of English or other languages continue to have plenty of strong Mandarin language modeling from peers.
These changes to Yu Ming’s enrollment practices and language model have already resulted in more diverse enrollment since they began to make the alterations in 2016. A parent shared that the school is “getting better. I have seen a lot more people of color—[they] want to get involved in the school as well.” These changes are most fully reflected in the kindergarten class of 2020 which is 16 percent Black, 11 percent Latinx, and 28 percent low-income. The school is considering an increase of their preference for FRPL-eligible students to 40, and hopes to continue increasing the enrollment of Black, Latinx, and FRPL-eligible students.
Christina Edwards, who serves as the school’s behavioral specialist, explains that “the more diversity we have and bring to the school, the more possibility there is to have someone to relate to, of having representation. We want to see ourselves when we’re walking in the hallways.”
While these increases in demographic diversity are impressive, Ms. Park says that she “knew that numeric diversity wasn’t going to cut it. One of our priorities is ensuring that our model actually serves all students well as we are increasingly diverse–that there is a sense of fierce belonging for everybody, not just the majority.”
During the 2016–2017 academic year, Yu Ming worked with a multi-stakeholder equity design team to write the school’s vision statement, and in 2019 the school put its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) pillar in place. Since the beginning of this process, Yu Ming has implemented extensive DEI professional development (PD) for faculty and staff. In the past, each school year has begun with at least two days dedicated to DEI and culturally responsive teaching. These have included trainings on issues such as how to create a positive, welcoming classroom environment that meet the needs of all students. Additionally, the school often invites a speaker or presenter to engage staff in training on anti-racism and diversity. Starting in the summer of 2021, all staff will also take part in anti-racist, anti-bias development.
Each school year begins with at least two days dedicated to anti-racist, anti-bias development. These have included trainings on issues such as how to create responsive classrooms that meet the needs of all students by creating a welcoming, positive classroom environment.
DEI development is ongoing, and is woven into the calendar throughout the year; it is this consistency that makes Yu Ming’s approach to PD successful. Teachers take part in three to four DEI-focused sessions during the year, with this ongoing development often led by Yu Ming teachers. Teachers also participate in book clubs or discussion groups to continue building their cross-cultural literacy. The goal of this intensive focus on DEI is to ensure that teachers are ready to engage with the small teachable moments that occur throughout the school day. Ms. Park wants her staff to be “equipped and comfortable to facilitate a conversation” that can come up at any time, from the classroom to the lunchroom.
Another reason for Yu Ming’s particular approach to DEI is their unique staff. Two-thirds of the school’s staff are Chinese citizens teaching in the United States, to whom the history of racism in America is often brand-new. With this unique context in mind, the school is working with an equity partner to develop a new series of workshops—consisting of five intensive, ninety-minute sessions—that will facilitate a deep exploration of individual mindsets, values, and identity. Faculty members will be invited to become trainers for future staff, so that anyone who joins Yu Ming gets to experience this comprehensive introduction to anti-racist, anti-bias work that is closely and intentionally aligned with the school’s values. Ms. Park explains that in the past, the school “approached DEI training with our teachers in a very intellectual, head-focused way. But if you’re going to embody anti-racist, anti-bias practices, you need to dive into your own identity, your connection to privilege and oppression, your own understanding. And we had never actually done that deep dive together.”
While many Yu Ming teachers are new to American history and politics, their unique identities are also one of the school’s most important assets. Yue Shao, a middle school Mandarin teacher and member of the school’s leadership team, explains that her background as an immigrant gives her “a deep understanding of how important it is to feel a sense of belonging that makes [her] more sensitive and open” to the needs of her students.
Student and Family Experience
Yu Ming takes a whole-child approach to education, which seeks to integrate rigorous academics with age-appropriate social–emotional learning (SEL) curricula for all students. To meet the needs of all students, the school has also created a significant support system that includes a school psychologist, four mental health counselors, a behavioral specialist, and seven behavior aides. Ms. Edwards, one of the school’s behavioral specialists, shared that Yu Ming is “very open to suggestions, and [is] always willing to grow in terms of…what is whole child education, what is school culture supposed to be.” This self-reflective stance and focus on continuous improvement has had a positive impact on students and their experiences at the school.
In interviews, students were uniformly enthusiastic about their experiences at Yu Ming, and each of them highlighted the close-knit community as one of their favorite things about the school. One 8th grade student explained it like this: “Yu Ming talks a lot about community, and we sort of laugh at it because we’re teenagers, but I would say that community is one of the best things about Yu Ming.” They said that because most students started together in kindergarten, their classmates began to feel like family. They were also quick to add that everyone is welcoming to the few new students who join the school each year, and that “pretty quickly, they become not like a new student anymore.” One student who came to Yu Ming in 6th grade volunteered that “people were really accepting.”
Students pointed to Circle, a weekly opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and appreciations with their classmates, as one of the ways in which Yu Ming builds community. While Circle provides a targeted place for students to be coached in SEL practices and to articulate and practice their commitments to one another, Ms. Park explains that “the real goal is that we are that way all the time.” Other community-building strategies that students value are whole-school community meetings, led by the student council. These meetings provide an opportunity for all students, from kindergarten through 8th grade, to get to know each other through team-building exercises or friendly competition.
While the anecdotal experiences these students shared with me were compelling, their experiences are also supported by data. Yu Ming asks their students and families to complete a
school culture survey biannually. Over three-quarters of elementary students and about two-thirds of middle school students responded favorably to the school belonging question bank. In comparison, only 54 percent of the students attending middle school in Oakland Unified School District reported feeling a sense of belonging during the 2018–2019 school year. This comparison demonstrates that Yu Ming’s proactive approach to creating a sense of belonging is having an impact on the school’s students and community.
95 percent of families agree that the school values the diversity of the school community, 96 percent say they have volunteered at the school or participated in family engagement activities, and 97 percent say they feel a sense of belonging at the school.
Yu Ming also works to engage families. Ninety-three percent of families responded to the 2019–2020 family survey; the results showed that 95 percent of families agree that the school values the diversity of the school community, 96 percent say they have volunteered at the school or participated in family engagement activities, and 97 percent say they feel a sense of belonging at the school. Ms. Edwards explains that “when [families join] the school, there’s a sense of ‘now you belong here.’ Families aren’t going to let other families fail. Parents show up for each other with pure hearts.”
There are ample opportunities for parents to get involved at Yu Ming. Parents are invited to participate in affinity groups, which were started by the school’s family liaison and include meetings for parents from a variety of diverse backgrounds to ensure that families of all identities feel welcomed at the school. The school also celebrates the diversity of the school community through monthly cultural celebrations such as Black History Month and APIA Heritage Month. These celebrations may include events like “Food for Thought,” which invited families of pan-African descent to make a dish that is important to their culture so that students could learn about each other’s backgrounds. The school also holds a Lunar New Year festival each year. Ms. Edwards explains that these events help to ensure that students “are recognized…We want everyone to feel included.”
A Holistic Approach to Integration
Yu Ming’s mission is to nurture an inclusive and diverse community to become empowered, engaged, and outstanding global citizens. Ms. Park explains that while the school shapes bilingual graduates, “Mandarin immersion is not the goal. It is one of the tools that a really empathetic global citizen needs to have in order to make change in the world.” For other dual-language schools, or any school seeking to create a diverse and inclusive school community, Yu Ming’s model can provide three main takeaways.
Use responsive enrollment strategies to ensure diversity. While intentions are important, policy changes may be necessary to ensure that schools are integrated. Targeted recruitment, changes to a school’s enrollment mechanism, and expanding enrollment are all strategies that can enhance student body diversity. Setting aside seats for students based on FRPL eligibility can be an effective way to maintain a socioeconomically diverse school community, and often leads to increased racial diversity as well.
Provide staff with ongoing professional development and DEI training. Ongoing and comprehensive staff development in anti-racist, anti-bias practices is an effective way to ensure that teachers are able to support all students. Exploring and leveraging teachers’ own unique identities, especially in a dual-language environment, can be an effective way to create connections with diverse students.
Offer a comprehensive continuum of social and emotional supports to students and their families. Schools can create a welcoming environment by creating robust support systems for all students, including SEL development in the curriculum, and planning intentional community-building. Inviting parents to get involved at the school reinforces a sense of belonging across the school community as a whole.
When done well, the dual-language model can provide a successful framework for creating diverse, inclusive, and integrated schools where all students and their families are welcomed and feel a deep sense of belonging.
Editorial note: This commentary was updated on May 6, 2021, to add detail regarding Yu Ming’s program. header photo: source: Yu Ming Charter School Facebook