By Jill Christensen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Barriers do not exist at Beacon Hill International Elementary School, both physically and culturally.
With its open concept classroom style, Beacon Hill Elementary not only encourages cohesiveness through the layout of its classrooms, but it strives to bridge the gap between cultures through its language immersion programs.
Currently, parents and staff are attempting to further bridge this gap for fifth-grade students who are part of the school’s Mandarin program by planning a class trip to China at the end of March next year. These students will travel alongside their families to visit their sister school in Chongqing, China as an opportunity to test their language skills and embrace Chinese culture.
“I feel like [the trip] is a culmination of six years of them being in language immersion,” said Katie Virga, principal of Beacon Hill International Elementary School. “You’re not really in the culture until you’re immersed.”
However, two-thirds of the students at Beacon Hill Elementary qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a program that allows low-income families to receive benefits for kids that contribute to their overall academic success, according to the USDA. So, many students who want to go on the trip can’t afford to do so. In response to this, parents are raising funds for low-income students to be able to participate in the trip.
“It’s really important that every kid who wants to go has the opportunity to do so without finances being an impingement,” said Beaumon, a parent who is helping to organize the trip and has a son in the fifth-grade Mandarin class.
Beacon Hill Elementary is a Title I school, which is a federally funded program aimed at providing equal and fair education for children who might not receive this treatment otherwise, according to Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Institution.
“The Beacon Hill community, in order to even consider a trip like this, they want to make sure that finances are not a barrier to participation,” said Kelly Aramaki, Executive Director of Schools for Seattle Public Schools.
In 2014, fifth-grade students made this same trip to Chongqing for the first time, and parents were able to raise funds for students of low-income families to travel to their sister school, Renmin Primary School.
“We found from our trip four years ago that it’s really important to have some wholeness and fairness for the kids, to make sure that there is opportunity for everybody,” Beaumon said.
Parents are fundraising by appealing to the business communities in particular to Chinese American businesses, in addition to asking individuals to donate.
“I’d love to see the community, our international community, and our business partners, partner with what we are trying to do, especially with the international schools, and giving kids access to international study and travel,” Aramaki said. “Because these are their future employees, leaders, managers.”
On the trip, students will be able to use the language they have been studying for six years and experience what it is like to attend a Chinese public school by partaking in classes at their sister school.
“It is going to be a chance for our kids to really test their ability to communicate across cultures,” Beaumon said.
The kids will partake in homestays on their own with families from Renmin Primary School while on the trip, allowing the students to rely on their knowledge of the language to communicate.
“China is such a huge part of our world economy and our world politics that it’s important for us to be able to talk to so many people with whom we have so many connections,” Beaumon said.
In addition to practicing their language skills, the students will also participate in many cultural activities while on the trip.
“They will also do some cultural tourism, which is really important to develop their understanding of China and not just reading about the Great Wall in a book, but being able to walk on the Great Wall,” Beaumon said. “It’s a profound experience.”
This trip allows students to take what they have learned in a classroom setting and apply this learning to real life experiences.
“The beauty of the immersion program is for kids to know what it means to be Chinese. Not just to speak the language, but to know real people,” said Beaumon. “That can only be good for both our countries and the world, politically and socially.”
While many kids in the Mandarin immersion program are not Chinese, many parents want their kids to start making cultural and language connections at a young age. Students are fully immersed in the language for half the day, as they learn math and science.
“All the dual language research talks about how language development is so important at the early ages,” Virga said. “Not only can students acquire a second language at such an accelerated level, but also it wires their brains differently so they have this advanced level of thinking through college and beyond.”
Even while learning math and science in a language other than English, students have been able to consistently perform well on standardized tests in English, according to Beaumon.
“Our kids work really hard and we are proud of their success in being good learners in two languages, in bridging the cultures, and we want to give the kids an authentic experience in that culture and language,” Beaumon said.
“At Beacon Hill, for the kids who are learning Mandarin for half the day every single day, it’s a huge investment on behalf of the kids and their parents,” Aramaki said. “We want all of our kids, no matter what their socioeconomic background is, or the income of their parents, we want them to have the opportunity to expand their learning by traveling.”
For more information on how to donate for the student’s trip to China, visit https://goo.gl/7uarnC.
Jill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.