By LaShawn Hudson
Most parents teach their children not to talk to strangers, but Alicia Miller is often overjoyed when her two young daughters do it.
The west Charlotte mother says that,without fail, when they go out in public, Laura, 6, and Kiera, 3, usually start impromptu conversations.
“My girls love to go up to people who they think speak Chinese and talk to them,” gushes Miller, 37. “They love to talk with them in Chinese. People usually find the act endearing; their faces light up.”
Her girls are among a diverse mix of 125 students who attend East Voyager Academy (EVA), a tuition-free public charter school in west Charlotte that teaches students how to read, write and speak the Chinese language of Mandarin. It’s reportedly the first school in North Carolina to offer a full Chinese immersion program. It currently shares facility space with Harvest Church Charlotte on a campus tucked away in a cul-de-sac, across the street from West Mecklenburg High School.
“We are one of a few elementary schools in Charlotte that teaches two languages,” says school principal Timothy Murph. “We are not just teaching language here;, that’s a misconception; we are teaching math and science through language.”
Eight years after its sister school, East Point Academy, opened in Columbia, EVA opened its school doors in August of 2018, in what is now a growing mixed African American and Latino neighborhood. Board members say 75 percent of classroom instruction is taught in Mandarin Chinese, with the remaining 25 percent of instruction taught in English.
Students such as Imani Washington and many of her fellow fourth-grade classmates say that learning Mandarin has been tough, but they’re determined to master the skill.
“It was kind of challenging for me because it was hard to say the words,” she says. “My teacher then helped me. She helped me learn the words, step-by-step.”
John Lui, with the Chinese American Association of Charlotte, says EVA students are learning a valuable skill that has the potential to help them in future global economic opportunities.
“China has grown to the second economic superpower in the world,” he explains. “The trading between [the] U.S. and China has grown exponentially over the last decade. Learning the Chinese language will be the gateway to a lot of business opportunities for our citizens.”
Jian Zhang, who chairs EVA’s board of directors and serves as an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at UNC Charlotte, says that’s one of the school’s main objectives.“The mission of EVA is to graduate our students with English-Chinese bilingual proficiency, strong academics and competence.”
Diversity and inclusion are also pushed heavily at EVA. Administrators say it’s a big part of EVA’s secret sauce. “We recruit globally, many of our teachers are Chinese-American,” says Murph. “Our student population is also diverse. We have students from 30 different countries. We have students from South America, Europe, Congo, Russia, Thailand and several other places.”
In addition to dual-language classrooms, the school is certified in the Math Kangaroo program, which leaders hope will help them lead Charlotte public schools in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “It’s our philosophy that mathematics and language go hand in hand,” explains Murph, a former math teacher. “Our founder is passionate about math. The goal is for our students to have the highest math test scores in the city.”
Numerous studies conducted by psychologists and linguists suggest that students who learn a foreign language at an early age are more creative, are better at solving complex problems and usually score higher on standardized tests.
EVA school officials say ultimately, they want to grow its student population over the next five years to 800 students. Administrators say they will add a fifth grade this upcoming school year, and they will continue to add a grade level each year until they reach eighth grade. They also want to expand the school’s exterior, by building a new building on its 18-acre plot of land and increase teacher pay.
As for Miller and her daughters, she says it’s a joy to watch them learn, grow and expand their cultural horizons.
“People tell me that my girls sound like they are native Mandarin Chinese speakers,” she explains. “At EVA, they don’t have to worry about being the only Black students in their classrooms. My daughters are being gifted with a priceless gift of becoming global citizens without leaving their west Charlotte community.”
For more information about East Voyager Academy, visit: /www.eastvoyager.org