Palo Alto Weekly

At School

   Jenny Wan-Mernyk always knew she wanted her two young daughters to learn Chinese. She just wasn’t sure if the traditional methods used by many Chinese schools in Palo Alto were the right way to go.

   “We tried on Chinese school in our neighborhood, but it was geared more towards people who speak Chinese at home,” she said. “My husband is Caucasian, I am Chinese. We speak English at home, but I still wanted my children to learn about the culture and the language of China.”

   Wan-Mernyk found the perfect place in Hwa Shin Chinese School, which conducts classes every Saturday morning at Jordan Middle School. Unlike the Palo Alto Chinese School at JLS Middle School and the Chinese School at Stanford, Hwa Shin is geared towards children who don’t speak Chinese regularly at home – something many Palo Alto parents have been looking for.    

   “What I like at Hwa Shin is their teaching method,” said Wan-Mernyk, who regularly attends her daughter’s pre-kindergarten class to assist when necessary. “Here they speak English for the younger-aged classes to help the kids get started.”    

   Hwa Shin co-founder Phyllis Lee says the school’s bilingual approach is what sets it apart from other Chinese schools.    

   “All of our students don’t know any Mandarin when they first come,” said Lee. “Some may know just Cantonese and some may know just English. Because of this we definitely have to make more effort to achieve something.”    

   Lee founded the nonprofit school with her husband, Thomas, in 1995, making Hwa Shin one of the newest of the four Chinese schools in Palo Alto. The Lees decided the start the school after immigrating from Taiwan and noticing the need for an English-oriented Chinese school in Palo A lot. Using their own time and money, the couple joined the Association of Northern California Chinese schools and got permission from the Palo Alto school district to use the Jordan campus on Saturday mornings.    

   Students at Hwa Shin pay a tuition of $160 per semester, which helps pay for class materials, teacher salaries, and school wide events like Chinese bands and calligraphy workshops. Parents help donate more money and volunteer time to the school as well.    

   Lee, who has background in education in Taiwan, says the method Hwa Shin uses of singing Chinese songs is the best way for the younger children to first learn the language.    “In the mornings we teach them to sing a song called ‘Good Morning, Teacher! Good morning, Friends!’ We change the words around to teach them other words like ‘father’ and ‘mother.’ Through this singing we teach them the phonics, and when we put the phonics together they will know the words. They catch up this way,” she said.    

   A typical, two-hour pre-kindergarten class on Saturday morning starts with the children singing songs in a circle with the teacher at the front of the classroom. Children are then taught the phonics of Chinese characters - representing subjects like animals and actions – through cue cards picture and repetitive learning. A story is told from a book written in Chinese, helping the children learn how to count butterflies or describe what a rabbit does. At the end of the class period, the children are left to study worksheets on their own.    

   Parents are encouraged to attend class along with their children at this early age. This can be helpful, Wan-Mernyk says, for parents who do not speak Chinese to become familiar with what their children are learning.    

   “If you look at a lot of parents who come in to watch the classes, you see they’re in the same situation I’m in with being in an interracial marriage,” she said. “In fact, there are even some Caucasian kids and their parents who come here just to learn Chinese.”    

   Because of this unique approach to teaching, students at Hwa Shin spend two years in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels learning the phonics of Mandarin. The school is currently enrolled with over60 students up to the fifth grade, mostly made up of students who first began learning in the pre-K class. Lee plans on expanding the school up to the 12th-grade level.    

   Tim Chou of Palo Alto has a daughter in Hwa Shin’s fifth grade class as well as one in the pre-kindergarten class. He says he plans to keep his daughters enrolled in the school all the way through high school.    

   “My only real objective in enrolling them in Chinese school was that the sounds would be a part of their life,” said Chou, who also enrolled his daughters in a Spanish immersion program to further expand their language skills.