Children learn how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. • Photo courtesy of Hoa Mai
Children learn how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. • Photo courtesy of Hoa Mai

When Seattle-area Vietnamese parents expressed concern to the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) that their children were losing their language and heritage, the VFA, in conjunction with two other organizations, sought to address these issues through an early education center. The idea for creating a dual language Vietnamese preschool was initiated in 2009. Parents said the school would help their children overcome opportunity gaps.

Seattle is home to dozens of dual language education programs for young children, with the great majority focusing on Spanish. Washington students served by the State Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program spoke a total of 203 different languages, according to a report to the Legislature on educating English language learners in Washington in 2011.

In September, a Vietnamese bilingual preschool will be opened for the first time in Seattle. The goal of Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool is to ensure that children are well prepared for kindergarten, while developing skills in both English and Vietnamese. Vietnamese culture will also be a focal point of teachings.

“Children can really thrive in a bilingual, bicultural environment,” said James Hong, Director of Operations at the VFA. “They can master a second and third language if they want. Children have that ability and can absorb it all.”

Hong said parents of any background, not just Vietnamese parents, are invited to enroll their children, who, studies indicate, would benefit from learning a second language.

“There has been a lot of research that demonstrates the cognitive, emotional, and social benefits to children [learning a second language],” Hong said. “That’s what gets us really excited.”

According to researchers at University College London, people who learned a foreign language at a younger age later developed more advanced areas of gray matter, or the area in the brain that processes information. As a result, they scored higher on standardized tests, exhibited more creativity and showed less signs of mental decline as they age, according to the study.

The work of Patricia Kuhl, a professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington, has influenced many bilingual preschool programs in the Seattle area. Kuhl believes bilingual children as young as infants develop different brain wiring compared to their monolingual counterparts. Kuhl, also the co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, also believes that bilingual babies grow to become better at problem solving and decision making later in life.

Hoa Mai will be located next to the Mt. Baker light rail station and housed in a building created by Artspace, an organization that creates spaces for artists. The three-classroom building will also have a community kitchen and an outdoor play area.

Sound Child Care Solutions, a partner in the venture, supports early childhood education organizations. Together with the VFA, Sound Child Care Solutions created a curriculum for two to five year olds built around Vietnamese language and heritage.

The curriculum is described as child-centered, play-based, and facilitated by empowered teachers engaged in rigorous and reflective practice who learn alongside the children. Teachers pay close attention to cultivating student’s self-esteem and their dispositions toward learning, risk-taking, socialization, and problem solving. The maximum group size per classroom is 16 students.

“We had a common vision for community development, diversity, and early learning,” Hong said.

Hoa Mai, the name of a five-petal yellow flower that blooms only during the time of the Lunar New Year, is a name commonly associated with good luck.

Hong said the name in the context of the school “represents good fortune and prosperity for our children and community.”

Hoa Mai’s philosophy is to nurture and honor every child’s unique cultural heritage by implementing anti-bias practices and emphasizing the value of diversity that does not stereotype, trivialize, or objectify.

“The flower also represents the growth of the hearts and minds of children,” Hong said. “The roots of the flower are the foundation on which we want to build our community and future.”

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