Census 2001
Keeping the Tradition
High demand for Chinese language schools in Palo Alto

by Geoff S. Fein

Education is one of the primary reasons many Asians move to Palo Alto. When looking for a home they ask Realtors about the local schools. They talk with friends and co-workers and even visit campuses.

But as good as the Palo Alto Unified School District is, one thing is missing: the schools do not teach Chinese.

"The Palo Alto schools offer German, Spanish, French and Japanese, but not Chinese," said Xiao Hong Shen, assistant director for East Asian Studies at Stanford. "That's why there is such high demand for Chinese (language) schools."

Nancy Wong and her 9-year-old son, Samuel, study music and literature in their home. The book, written in Mandarin, contains passages on Shakespeare.


According to the Census, therere are 5,450 Chinese in Palo Alto, accounting for 9.3 percent of the population. Japanese account for 2.3 percent of the population. All told, Asians make up 17.2 percent of Palo Alto's population.

There has been a movement to have Chinese taught in the schools, but until it is adopted into the PAUSD language program, the only places Chinese students can learn their language are at the Palo Alto Chinese School and the Chinese School at Stanford, which have a combined enrollment of almost 1,000 students.

"Stanford has a wonderful Chinese school," Shen said. "It's very high quality."

Her 11-year-old daughter has attended the Stanford school almost every Saturday for three years. The school operates on the quarter system and students attend class for up to 2.5 hours every Saturday. The program is structured training to help students become more literate in their Chinese, Shen said.

Course materials and text books were all selected or written by Liping Ma, principal of the Chinese Language School at Stanford.

"The emphasis is on reading and speaking (Chinese)," said Shen, who added less emphasis is placed on writing the language.

The Saturday school opened about seven years ago with 12 students. Now it has an enrollment of 300 and offers courses for children from kindergarten through eighth grade, Ma said.

The school focuses on simplified Chinese patterned after schools in Mainland China, Ma said. In simplified Chinese, there are less characters than traditional Chinese.

Linda Chiang is an advisor to the 38-year-old Palo Alto Chinese School at JLS Middle School. She helped found the school and was its principal from 1999 to 2001. It is the oldest Chinese school in the area and one of 80 in the Bay Area. The school offers courses for students from kindergarten through high school. They are held every Friday evening, for two hours, during the academic year.

In 1987, the school boasted an enrollment of 300 students. Today, there are almost 600 students at the Palo Alto Chinese School, Chiang said.

Students at the Palo Alto Chinese School learn the more traditional form of Chinese as taught in Taiwan. In this form, the characters are more complex and require more strokes, one parent said.

Just as at the Stanford school, students at the Palo Alto Chinese School are coming to learn their language, Chiang said.

In 1980 the Palo Alto school offered 29 classes: six in Cantonese and 23 in Mandarin.

There is a third school teaching both courses in Chinese and French. The International School of the Peninsula is a private, all-day, school. Parents can enroll their children as early as pre-kindergarten all the way up to fifth grade. Currently there is a waiting list for pre-Kindergarten enrollment, said Ying Mitchell, a parent of two students attending the school.

Kindergarten is taught 80 percent in Chinese, Mitchell said. By the time the children get into first grade, the courses are taught half in Chinese half in English.

"In Kindergarten, on the first day, the kids look dazed," Mitchell said. "But at the end of the year, you see improvement. It's amazing."

The children are learning to communicate with each other by first grade, Mitchell added.

In upper grades, students are learning math, English, science, Chinese culture, music, and art, all taught in Chinese and English, Mitchell said.

The Chinese program is 6 years old and had four students in the first year. Today, the school boasts about 90 students, Mitchell said.