How a Public Chinese Immersion School Is Desegregating St. Louis

The Chinese School brings together students from the suburbs and the inner city in one of America's most racially divided cities.

ST. LOUIS—"Zăo shàng hăo," says principal Lydia Chen in Mandarin Chinese to about 160 children sitting in neat rows on the playground. "Good morning."

"Zăo shàng hăo," reply the first- and second-graders, wearing navy ties and sweater vests, and fidgeting in line next their teachers, who are mostly from Beijing and Taiwan.

It's the first day of the year at the Chinese School, a St. Louis public charter school that teaches kindergarten through second grade entirely in Mandarin Chinese. Most of the students at this inner-city school come from low-income families. More than half of them are African-American.

The school is one of a handful of charter schools trying to reverse decades of racial segregation in the St. Louis public-school system. And enrollment is growing. This is the Chinese School's third year open and it just moved into a building of its own, a converted brick hospital just a mile from the Anheuser Busch brewery in downtown St. Louis.

Second-grader Jalyn Hill was so excited to start school this year that she barely slowed to say good-bye to her mother on her first day back. During the morning assembly on the playground, Jalyn joined teachers and students in singing the school's spirit song, a Chinese rhyme about a slow but determined turtle.

"WÇ’ "... wÇ’ ... yÇ’ng bú fàngqì. YÇ’ng bú fàngqì," Jalyn sings, pumping her fist along with the other students. "I "... I "... never give up. Never give up."

Jalyn was part of the school's first kindergarten class in 2012. Since then, she has learned to count, and draw Chinese characters, and she now walks up to strangers she overhears speaking Chinese at the grocery store, says her mom, Jessica Clark.

"Being a little African-American girl and going up to Asian people, speaking Chinese—it blows their minds," says Clark, who runs a business that sells natural gas.

Clark says the Chinese School is the reason she won't move away from St. Louis. The charter school is free for city residents. Thousands of other African-American families have moved to the suburbs in recent decades so their children could attend better schools. But Clark chose the Chinese School so her daughter could have the multicultural education she never had as a young girl in St. Louis. She points out that Jalyn's best friend is from Egypt, and that Jalyn recently sang "Happy Birthday" to her in English, Arabic, and Chinese. Clark never experienced anything like that.

"I went to a city school, a predominantly black city school. So everybody ate the same thing, we all had the same kind of hair, everything was the same," she says.

Part of the Chinese school's mission is promoting "intercultural dialogue," something rare in a city that ranks as one of the most racially segregated in the country. One out of every two black students in the St. Louis metro area attends a public school where 90 percent of the students are racial minorities, according to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Rhonda Broussard opened the Chinese School in 2012 after noticing the high demand for Chinese speakers in the global economy and after speaking to members of the growing Chinese community in St. Louis. She is a former teacher who had already opened Spanish- and French-immersion schools as part of the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, a nonprofit network she founded of public charter schools with an international focus.

Broussard said her goal is to give children from all social and racial backgrounds the opportunity to learn another language and succeed in a globalized world. Students at the Chinese School come from the poor neighborhoods nearby and even the wealthy suburbs. About two dozen students commute from the predominantly white communities in west St. Louis County. They can attend city schools for free as part of a federal desegregation plan launched in the early 1980s.

"Everyone wakes up in their mostly segregated communities and then they come to our school, and we expect them to believe this is normal," says Broussard. "We expect them to suspend belief and be engaged in this multicultural, multilingual, multinational experience and buy into it. But every night they go back home to segregated communities."

That is a challenge for teachers, she says, so classes often include lessons about cultural sensitivity and tolerance.

The classes are far different from the ones John Seitz remembers from his childhood St. Louis, when he attended a Catholic school run by nuns. Everyone he knew back then was white or Catholic, he says.

"There was very little diversity," says Seitz, a 43-year-old user experience designer for a financial services company.

The difference is "night and day" from his son's experience in first grade at the Chinese School. Seitz and his wife, who is Peruvian, wanted their son Rafa to learn a third language after English and Spanish. Now he says Rafa is picking up Chinese and is excited about learning kung fu in PE class.

"I couldn't even imagine that back in the world I knew in 1978 in St. Louis," Seitz says.

National Journal recently visited St. Louis and Ferguson to see how Rust Belt cities are changing after losing more than half their populations. This article is part of a Next America series about the people shaping the St. Louis region's future.