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Chinese Immersion Preschool on 52nd draws from across the city


by: MERRY MACKINNON - Woodstocks Yu Miao Chinese Immersion Schools Administrator, Terry Yang, guides three- and four-year-old children through the classrooms for a break. Children enrolled in the preschool learn Chinese culture and basic Mandarin vocabulary, pronunciation, and writing. North Portland resident Jade Chan doesn’t mind driving her children all the way to the Yu Miao Chinese Immersion Preschool at 5239 S.E. Woodstock Boulevard.

It's worth it, she says, because the teachers are well-educated and friendly, the classrooms are cheerful, and the students – ages three to five years old – develop a passion for learning Mandarin.

“The children rise to the occasion,” explains Chan, whose son spent two and half years at Yu Miao Chinese Immersion Preschool, and whose three-year-old daughter will enter the preschool in February.

It helps that Chan’s parents live close by, in Reed College Heights. Originally from the south of China, their dialect is Cantonese, but Chan is fiercely committed to providing her children with continuing lessons in Mandarin.

“China is a growing world power, and Mandarin is a growing language,” observes Chan, whose husband is of Irish heritage. “And my son loves it.”

Which is why Chan and her son were so disappointed when she received a rejection letter from Portland Public Schools – explaining that her son wasn’t chosen in the lottery system now used to select which students get into Woodstock Elementary School’s highly-successful Mandarin Immersion Program.

Chan says that when her son applied, there were twice as many applicants as there were available slots. Her son is now on the waiting list.

What happens at Woodstock Elementary School also impacts the Yu Miao Chinese Immersion Preschool and Afterschool Program blocks away. In its curriculum, the Yu Miao program has adopted the materials that are used by the Woodstock program.

“The focus here is teaching language and culture,” remarks Christine Lau, Chief Operating Officer for the Asian Health & Service Center, with which Yu Miao is affiliated. Classes are divided by age, with the younger children learning crafts, pronunciation, and basic vocabulary, and older children learning to write Chinese characters. Yu Miao is funded solely through tuition, which, depending upon the hours children spend there, ranges from $361 to $1,079 a month.

Yu Miao Chinese Immersion Preschool moved into its present location several years ago, in building where Our Lady of Sorrows once operated its former Catholic School. Founded in the late 1990s to provide parents who had adopted children from China with a way to introduce their children to Chinese culture, Yu Miao means “nurturing young sprouts”.

“Some Americans would go to China and adopt Chinese children, but they’re Caucasian,” explains Lau, adding that, over time, more Caucasian and other Asian children were enrolled.

According to Lau, the parents’ intention was to have their Yu Miao alumni children enroll in the Woodstock Mandarin Immersion Program.

But now Portland Public Schools has changed the Woodstock program, and with such strong demand, it is more difficult to get in. “Because so many want to go, Portland Public Schools does the ‘lucky draw’,” Lau says. “A lot of parents are upset.”

Three Yu Miao alumni who tried unsuccessfully to get into Woodstock’s Immersion Program now attend another of Yu Miao’s programs, its Kindergarten Chinese Immersion Language Class. “They go to regular kindergarten, and then come here to study Chinese,” Lau said.

In addition, some older children enrolled at Woodstock’s Chinese Immersion School attend afterschool programs at Yu Miao. “We help them with their homework,” Lau said. “Most of our parents are Caucasian and they cannot read their children’s homework!”