Renton bilingual school brings China, culture to kids

Harmony teacher, Jo Shan, gives instructions on how to write Chinese numbers 1 to 4 in Mandarin. - Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter
Harmony teacher, Jo Shan, gives instructions on how to write Chinese numbers 1 to 4 in Mandarin.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

A Renton bilingual preschool is teaching children Mandarin and bringing diverse families together to create community.

Harmony Early Childhood Education Center has been teaching children age 1 to 5 years old Chinese language and culture for seven years in downtown Renton. You may have noticed the school's little students as they go on their daily walk around the city in multi-seat strollers or tethered to a hand-leash, walking single-file in two rows.

Three-year-old Lucy Muturi is one of the students. Her parents Patrick and Ira Muturi enrolled her in the program three years ago and Lucy can now communicate with the Mandarin she's learned. Language skills and exposure to other cultures are important to her parents.

"It's very diverse and I think it creates a very good environment for our baby to grow up in," said Patrick of the school.

He's originally from Kenya and his wife is from Indonesia. Neither of Lucy's parents speak Mandarin, or Chinese. But Lucy speaks it at Harmony and she also speaks English with her father and her mother's native tongue with her. Her father sees America as a melting pot and the world as getting smaller as different cultures come closer together.

"We want her to get used to society because she is American after all," Patrick said. "We also don't want her to grow up ignorant of other people."

A lot of American parents would like their children to learn a second language, said Regina Xie, center director, and she feels that Chinese is a good choice.

"I think we can say 80 percent of the kids' parents, they don't speak Chinese at all," said Xie of families represented at Harmony. "They don't understand Chinese at all, but they are interested in Chinese and they want their kids to learn Chinese."

The students and their families come from many cultures and races, she said. There are Asian, black and white families with students enrolled at Harmony.Typically the school instructs 80 to 100 students a year. At age 5, students graduate to attend kindergarten at another school. Some families continue their child's Chinese language lessons with private tutors. Throughout the year the center hosts cultural events, like a lunar New Year celebration and Moon Festival, so that the families can get to know each other.

"We have parents who are Caucasian, adopting Chinese kids from China and they get to know each other," said Lily Kuo, Harmony founder. "They even have a group that went camping for years. The kids are already in third-grade; they're still doing that yearly thing."

Kuo, who used to be the director of the Refugee Women's Alliance, started the school to be closer to her own children. She is originally from China and has a teaching degree from Central Washington University with a background in early childhood education. Because Kuo didn't want to leave her kids in daycare and had little quality time to spend with them after work, plans for the center eventually took shape. Harmony offers spots to children regardless of whether families have private funding or state supported funding, under the premise that every child has an equal opportunity to start at Harmony.

Learning Chinese, Kuo said, is popular and "you cannot learn a language unless you are soaking in that pot." "Otherwise you learn one to 10 and you tell people, 'I can speak Chinese," she said. "But it's only one to 10 you can speak."

Giving opportunities to the students and families to learn Chinese culture is important too, which is where the Chinese holidays come in, she said.

"You can't just read a book or watch TV and assume," Kuo said.

Students at Harmony learn Mandarin through constant immersion in the language. They learn words and culture through songs and practice writing characters in art projects. Teachers, practically all of whom are native speakers, are asked to speak Mandarin to students 100 percent of the time. There are nine teachers on staff, two are assigned to each classroom at a time. All of the instructors have a background in early childhood education. One instructor is even a medical school graduate from China, who decided to pursue teaching in the states.

Harmony is not a daycare or a center for infant care, Kuo said, but she will give referrals to parents. Business has been better since the downturn in the economy, which decreased enrollment and closed other centers. Now there is a waiting list at Harmony.

"I got so (much) feedback from our parents saying thank you (for) creating this center for the community," Kuo said.


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