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Hanging on to Heritage : Saturday-Morning Chinese Schools Are Teaching Language and Culture


No Saturday morning television cartoons. No extra hours' sleep. No playtime with friends from school.

But that's all right with 10-year-old Melissa Chang, who spends four hours of her Saturday mornings sitting in a Hacienda Heights classroom.

Inside, the American-born fifth-grader learns about her Chinese heritage and how to speak Chinese.

"It will help me when I go to Taiwan and when I go to foreign countries," she said before the start of her Chinese arts and crafts class. "When there are people from other (Chinese-speaking) countries, I can communicate with them."

Melissa is one of about 10,000 Chinese-American children and teen-agers in the San Gabriel Valley who attend Chinese programs on Saturdays. Almost all of the programs are sponsored by the Southern California Council of Chinese Schools, which operates classrooms from Santa Barbara to San Diego and east to Phoenix. Student enrollment totals 18,000--a 50% increase in the past six years. School officials attribute the boom to the influx of Chinese immigrants into the San Gabriel Valley.

Formed in 1976 by 11 schools in Los Angeles County, the Santa Monica-based council has since expanded to 87 schools--nearly half of them in the San Gabriel Valley.

Melissa's school, the Hacienda Heights Area Chinese School, opened in 1982 to accommodate the growing Chinese community in the east San Gabriel Valley, said her father, Joseph Chang. It leased rooms from a church before moving to Dibble Adult School, 1600 Pontenova Ave., in 1984.

"We had started with 100 students," recalled Chang, who served as school principal in 1991-92. "It grew really fast the last couple of years because a lot of immigrants came from Taiwan, moving into the Hacienda Heights area."

Current enrollment totals nearly 550 students, prompting school officials to expand to a second site at Cedarlane Junior High School, 16333 Cedarlane Drive, in 1990. Three other schools have opened nearby.

The Rowland Heights Unified School District alone leases four of its 15 elementary campuses to Chinese schools, district officials said.

One of those is Ming Yuan Institute in Rowland Heights, which opened last year. The growing school has 50 students on Saturdays and is a branch of the much larger program at St. Steven's Catholic School in Monterey Park.

The Saturday enrollment of 750 makes the Chinese school at St. Stevens the largest of its type in Southern California, said Michael Chen, who co-founded it in 1987.

Originally, Chinese language and culture classes were established because parents wanted their children to remember their heritage and get moral instruction based on Confucianism.

"We want them to know where they are from," said Chen, whose son attends Ming Yuan school in Monterey Park. "So basically, they need to be well-situated in the roots of their culture."

Although 14-year-old Stephenie Phelan of Walnut was against the idea of going to a Chinese school nine years ago, she has seen that it can bridge the communication gap between parents and children.

"I feel close to my mom now," said Phelan, whose mother is Chinese and father is Anglo.

As the schools have grown, so have their programs. Besides language instruction, they also offer lessons in Chinese arts and crafts, folk dancing, kung fu and computer classes. When the schools began, parents did most of the teaching. Now, the schools are hiring instructors with teaching credentials from Taiwan or who have linguistics or education degrees from

American universities.

Most classes are from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays. Annual tuition, which includes books and materials, ranges from just under $200 to nearly $300.

In addition, many programs offer after-school classes Monday through Friday and weekday classes during the summer.

Joseph Chang believes a Chinese moral education that teaches patience, humility and respect helps today's teen-agers deal with problems peacefully.

"Nowadays in this society, they don't have these kind of things," said Chang, who sends his 16-year-old son to Chinese school. "The kids don't know how to respect the people and what is responsibility and what is shame."

"In the Chinese culture, they learn about moral education--cheating is wrong, stealing is wrong. If all kids know that, they would not turn to violence."

And parents and students say that learning Chinese not only is an important way to pass on cultural values, but can help students pursue a college education and eventually a career.

For example, students at seven of the Chinese schools in the San Gabriel Valley can get foreign-language credit in their public schools for taking after-school or Saturday Chinese classes.

And in 1994, the Scholastic Aptitude Test for the first time will offer an achievement exam for proficiency in Chinese. A student earns a college credit with a high score on the test.

"My dad told me to come to Chinese school because he wants me to do well in life," said Robert Wu, a 12-year-old student at Ming Yuan's after-school program.

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