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When Gabriel Gasque’s family was looking for a new school for their kindergartener, they prioritized finding a language immersion school. Studies show that students in dual-language immersion programs tend to have higher achievement than students in monolingual schools. The Gasque-Sanchez family speaks Spanish at home, and they had the option of sending their son to a nearby Spanish immersion school recommended by friends.

But Gabriel also heard about a high-performing language immersion school just down the road that is also one of the top-performing schools in California: Yu Ming Charter School. There were some issues in Gabriel’s mind, though. Namely: Yu Ming is a Mandarin immersion school. How would their son adapt to learning this new language — his third — without any help from his parents? Would the Gasque-Sanchez family be able to preserve their family’s culture and proud heritage, too? Would their son, and really, the whole family, be up for this challenge?

So the Gasque-Sanchez family attended an open house at the school, which Gabriel remembers as “tipping the balance toward Yu Ming.” The family met other Spanish-speaking parents and asked them questions. Gabriel’s son is now in third grade at Yu Ming, and the family is happy with their decision. “They are making an honest effort to bring in more Brown and Black families and make them feel at home and included,” Gabriel said.

The Gasque-Sanchez family visiting New York City.
Yu Ming is a school with “exceedingly high expectations” for its students, said Sue Park, Yu Ming’s Head of School. “Every one of our kids has a highly-enriched and rigorous course of study,” Park said, “and lots of social-emotional supports.”

Yu Ming is also, by just about any measure, one of the best schools in the state, including public and private schools. The school was recently featured in a national publication, The New Yorker, which shared this about Yu Ming’s outstanding academics: “In the 2018-19 school year, ninety-four percent of Yu Ming’s third through eighth graders met or exceeded standards on the English language and literacy section of California’s main standardized test, compared with just a fifty-percent pass rate statewide. … U.S. News & World Report ranked Yu Ming the seventh-best elementary school in California—and it was the only entry in the top ten that is not a magnet school or situated in a wealthy suburb.”

The school is excellent and it is also diverse by design. There is much intentional community building that goes on, like coaching kids through their social emotional learning programs on how to build relationships with others who are different from them. Park said that achievement rises for all students when a school is diverse.

Yu Ming has had to be very intentional about increasing its diversity, which can be tricky for a popular, high-achieving school with the rare and sought-after curriculum of Mandarin immersion. To increase diversity, the school’s lottery was tweaked so the first lottery for seats is now for families who receive free or reduced-price school meals.

 

Yu Ming Charter School students.

 

“We had to put in the policy measures to be able to protect seats for families who might not have found us otherwise,” Park said, “so that they wouldn’t have to compete for those spots.”

Those families now have two lotteries to gain admittance, which has changed the composition of families at the school. “The increase in our diversity has helped us to live into our mission and our vision and our values,” Park said.

Yu Ming also hosts open houses where parents of specific groups, like Spanish-speaking or African American, can meet other parents who look like them or speak the same language, like the one Gabriel and family attended.

At the open house, Gabriel met teachers and school leaders, and parents of current Yu Ming students. He also sat with other Spanish-speaking families and, over pizza, talked about “our anxieties,” Gabriel remembered. A Columbian mother assured him his son would not lose his Spanish. He heard about how Yu Ming celebrated Hispanic holidays and traditions. “The school not only respects but celebrates diversity,” Gabriel said. “It’s very explicit and very proactive and I like it. It goes beyond being Latino. For example for Pride Month, they also take a proactive stance and say, ‘We are going to celebrate everyone’s existence.’”

 

The Ejigu family in front of the Statue of Liberty.

 

Bayoush Ejigu is a parent of a second-grader at Yu Ming. The Ejigu family is from Ethiopia. Bayoush remembers being excited about the opportunity to send her son to Yu Ming, but “to be honest, I was also really scared at first,” she said. The Ejigu family speaks Amharic at home, and other family members wouldn’t be learning to speak Mandarin as well. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send their son to a different school instead?

The high academics and reputation of Yu Ming won her over. Still, she was a bit skeptical when her son enrolled. “I told his teachers, ‘You have to help him with his homework,” Bayoush said. “We already speak two languages at home.”

Like Gabriel, Bayoush met other families at Yu Ming who share a similar background. There are 10 other Ethiopian and Eritrean families at Yu Ming, Bayoush said, and those families share traditions and a culture that is celebrated at Yu Ming. Bayoush’s son also joined the school soccer club, where she met other families who assured her “we don’t speak Mandarin at home either” and also really value the diversity of the Yu Ming families.

“It gave me assurance that I didn’t make the wrong decision for my son,” Bayoush said. “The parents support each other. They made me feel more sure that he’ll get it and learn the language.”

“As a parent, I’m proud to choose Yu Ming,” she added.

Bayoush took her son to Ethiopia last year and was impressed with how well he spoke the language of his people and was able to understand friends and family. She’s proud that he’s growing into a global citizen. “The Mandarin will help him in the future,” she said. “It makes me proud. I want him to explore everything. It makes me happy.”

Gabriel also wants his son to be a global citizen and explore the world. He remembers the impact his school in Mexico City had on himself growing up. “In a way, it cemented who I am,” Gabriel said. “My best friends are my elementary school classmates and my philosophy of life was cemented during those times.”

The school had the right combination of high academics and fun, he remembers. “I had fun learning,” he said. He sees something similar happening with his son at Yu Ming.

“I want my son to have instruction, but down the road, I want him to look back and remember these years as happy years and recognize his success in life as a global citizen,” Gabriel said. “I hope that this school for my son, in this immersive community of multilingual families, catapults him to make the world his oyster.”

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