Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool has been open just a little more than a month, but it is the realization of a vision nearly seven years in the making. Between 2009 and 2011, the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) sat down with Seattle’s Vietnamese families to identify some of their greatest community concerns.
What rose to the top for parents was their children’s loss of their Vietnamese language and culture, remembers James Hong, executive director of the VFA.
“And at the same time, we know that within Seattle, a lot of the Vietnamese students have a lot of barriers toward academic achievement,” said Hong’s predecessor and former VFA director Vu Le. “That’s how we came up with the idea of a preschool: this place where we can teach English and Vietnamese, and teach and promote that very same culture.”
VFA partnered with Sound Child Care Solutions and Artspace, to envision how to make this school possible, timing it with the city’s proposal to eventually provide universal pre-kindergarten education to all of Seattle’s 3- and-4-year-old children.
Voters passed this proposal last year, and today, Le’s son, Viet, who is 2, attends a completed Hoa Mai inside the Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts near Sound Transit’s Mt. Baker light rail station. Hoa Mai is the only Vietnamese bilingual preschool in Seattle.
Inside the bilingual classroom
Viet’s classroom, one of three inside Hoa Mai that opened on Dec. 14, is festooned with Asian lanterns and colorful umbrellas dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers. Viet’s class are all people of color — including his teacher.
Moving into another classroom, a shelf near the southwestern-facing windows displays both “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and contemporary story books in Vietnamese such as “Nam Con Dung Cam” (Translation: “Baby Mushroom is Brave”). The students in both classrooms on a recent Friday morning are snacking on peaches and flatbread, but the previous week on the lunch menu, it was tacos, cucumber salad and lemon curry chicken with rice noodles.
These details are intentional: a part of Hoa Mai’s curriculum philosophy. The school adopted the “Soy Bilingue” language curriculum, with one of its core tenets being the reflection of culture beyond learning the language, “not just honoring that language, but bringing in the props and culture: folk tales, songs, visuals,” Gloria Hodge, Hoa Mai director, explained.
Soy Bilingue is a Spanish-based bilingual learning model that several child care and preschool sites in Seattle have adopted, including the Refugee Immigrant Family Center, La Escuelita Bilingual School and Hoa Mai’s West Seattle sister site, Southwest Early Learning Bilingual Preschool.
Hoa Mai spends Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings speaking and learning Vietnamese, while the afternoons are spent in English. The languages are alternated for Tuesdays and Thursdays, said Hodge.
The Seattle Preschool Program (SPP), established last year as a four-year pilot program, funds 280 student slots at 15 preschool sites around Seattle, including Hoa Mai. In its fourth year, SPP plans to enroll 2,000 students in 100 classrooms.
At Hoa Mai, 48 slots are available to children between 2 and 4, but SPP prioritizes enrolling 4-year-olds, said Hodge, and does not fund preschool for students younger than 3.
“That’s a conversation that I would say a lot of agencies are having with [SPP] because truly, children aren’t going to learn Vietnamese in one year,” said Hodge.
Turning an “English-first” education model on its head
In the Seattle area, many Vietnamese churches, temples and community groups offer weekend language classes, but “it’s hard to sustain that type of learning and education over time because you’re only getting it every Saturday,” explained Hong.
Hong was born in California to Vietnamese refugee parents who insisted speaking English was the pathway to success.
Being part of an English-first education system, combined with the lack of Vietnamese language learning opportunities, came at a price for him and other Vietnamese Americans he knows who share similar experiences, he said.
“It’s a huge piece of our identity that has not been nurtured,” Hong said. “We don’t want that to happen in the community, either in the Vietnamese nor in the [larger] refugee community.”
Education systems and institutions should support healthy cultural identity, not take away from it, he said.
“If [students] don’t see their culture,” he said, “that has a real impact on their well-being.”
But the tide has turned, Hong said.
Nowadays, speaking multiple languages is readily supported in Seattle’s school system, with SPP planning to offer bilingual programs in more languages in the future.
“There’s so much more research [now] about the positive benefits of growing up speaking multiple languages,” said Hong. “The more languages spoken, the more their brain becomes activated and enriched.”
Decades of longitudinal studies also demonstrate that young children from birth to 5 receiving any kind of high-quality pre-K, have an opportunity to build a strong foundation for early cognitive development, leading to better outcomes in the K-12 classroom, reducing incarceration and generating substantial economic returns for both the beneficiary and the public.
Tuition at Hoa Mai and other universal pre-K sites in Seattle is free for households earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and SPP offers a monthly, sliding-scale co-pay of between $93 and $311 for families that earn more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
For Hodge, high-quality pre-K is ultimately about access.
“Why can’t families of Vietnamese, refugee and immigrant and diverse backgrounds – why can’t we all have high-quality care and early education opportunities before they enter kindergarten?” Hodge asked.
Growing up partially bilingual in Pasco with a Vietnamese immigrant mother, Hodge mostly spoke English and Spanish. Still, this gave her an edge in her career that she hopes that Hoa Mai students will have. Multilingual skills will make them competitive in the workforce, she said.
A parent’s perspective
South Seattle resident Susan Nguyen, who has her Vietnamese-American son, Aiden, enrolled at Hoa Mai, has had him in the bilingual program since it opened Dec. 14 last year.
“He comes home, he tells me he learned a song, he sings the song to me, he shows me his art work,” she said. Aiden is “telling me that he learned spelling his name. He’s telling me that he’s eating a lot of healthy things.”
Nguyen initially was worried about her son’s social adjustment to preschool, calling Hoa Mai every day during her lunch break to check up on him.
“He’s always been taken care of by my family, and he’s a little bit on the bossy side, so I didn’t know how that was going to turn out,” she said.
But the school reassured her daily, and Aiden seemed to be happy. Though she has yet to meet them, Aiden tells her he’s made a lot of friends at school.
“He gets encouragement from being around other kids,” she said.
Though Aiden, 5, can understand a little bit of Vietnamese, he didn’t speak it at home, she said. Now he tries.
“I’m glad that my friend introduced me to the school,” Nguyen said. “The way my friend put it, they’re really doing something right.”
Celebrate the opening of Hoa Mai with the school staff and kids at 2915 Rainier Avenue South inside the Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. More about Hoa Mai at www.hoamaipreschool.org.
Editor’s note: This story was updated from its original publication to clarify a quote by James Hong and correct a date.