"WÇ’ "... wÇ’ ... yÇ’ng bú fÃ ngqÃ¬. YÇ’ng bú fÃ ngqÃ¬," 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."