There’s a thoroughly unsympathetic but deeply felt crisis that hits the grown children of upwardly mobile immigrants. These second-generation strivers—who are largely assimilated, educated in the U.S., and often ostensibly liberal—have children of their own, and, when faced with the more lax customs of their neighbors, start to wonder if their parents, who forced them into all sorts of academic labor, might have been right all along. I call this population the Amy Chua Silent Majority, after the infamous author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Despite the association with Asian American tropes, members of the A.C.S.M. are actually quite ethnically diverse. I’ve met Russians, West Africans, West Indians, Central Americans, and South Asians who belong to this group. They squirm every time they hear about “play-based learning.” They collectively roll their eyes at the idea of homework bans. They wonder if it’s really necessary to let kids just be kids.
Their—our—discomfort is nothing new. The anxieties of immigrant populations have shaped American education for more than a century. The establishment of Catholic schools in the U.S., for instance, came from successive waves of immigrants who felt anxious about the public-school system. In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholics from Europe migrated into East Coast cities, and their children attended “common schools” founded on Protestant norms that didn’t look particularly fondly on the newcomers. Catholic schools were created, in large part, to allow the children of these immigrants to retain their culture and take classes taught in French, German, or Italian.
The influence of parochial schools grew until 1964, when a full twelve per cent of America’s K-12 students were enrolled in Catholic institutions. But, as Irish and Italian families began to move to the suburbs and into public schools in the latter half of the sixties, a new group of immigrants from Asia, South America, and the Caribbean came in to take their place. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Catholic school increasingly became something of a middle ground between the public-school system and expensive private schools, and less of a cultural or religious institution. “For immigrant families that have arrived recently,” Vivian Louie and Jennifer Holdaway wrote in a 2009 paper, “religion seems to be more or less irrelevant to the decision to send their children to Catholic school. Instead, like many native Blacks and Latinos, these families chose Catholic schools to avoid what they see as a seriously deficient public school system.”
Immigrant parents who feel alienated from or squeamish about public schools still send their kids to parochial schools. But, in many of America’s largest cities, another option, which has none of the religious hangups of the Catholic school nor the price of private schools, has presented itself: the Chinese-language-immersion school.
The main campus of the Yu Ming Charter School, in North Oakland, is situated in a former Catholic school, near the intersection of Alcatraz Avenue and San Pablo Avenue. A relief of the Virgin Mary still hangs above the front door, but the interior has been scrubbed clean of any vestiges of its parochial past. There are no converted altars or pews or cramped quarters that might have served the nuns.
The students at Yu Ming wear navy-blue and white uniforms, and learn in classrooms that are modest and cozy. Kindergarteners sit on a rug on the floor and listen to a teacher speak to them in Mandarin; across the hall, first graders jump up and down, singing a Chinese song set to the tune of “Ten Little Fingers.” I visited during just the seventh week of classes, meaning that roughly seventy per cent of the kindergarten class could not yet understand what was being taught, except through physical cues or the very occasional hint whispered in English. But, by the second grade, they will know how to write stories in Chinese characters. In third grade, they’ll start taking the standardized tests required of every student in California—and they’ll most likely excel.
In the 2018-19 school year, ninety-four per cent of Yu Ming’s third through eighth graders met or exceeded standards on the English language and literacy section of California’s main standardized test, compared with just a fifty-per-cent pass rate statewide. In the Oakland Unified School District (O.U.S.D.), only forty-five per cent of students passed. The disparities in math were even more stark, with ninety-four per cent of Yu Ming students exceeding standards, compared with O.U.S.D.’s thirty-six-per-cent pass rate. U.S. News & World Report ranked Yu Ming the seventh-best elementary school in California—and it was the only entry in the top ten that is not a magnet school or situated in a wealthy suburb. The Web site Niche, which provides a popular database for school rankings, named Yu Ming the top charter elementary and charter middle school in the Bay Area. Owing to enormous demand among local families, Yu Ming has expanded to three campuses across Alameda County. According to the school’s internal numbers, it has about two and a half applicants for every kindergarten seat.
All of this is unusual for a Chinese-language-immersion school, especially in Oakland, where enrollment in both district and charter public schools has been declining in the past five years. One might attribute Yu Ming’s success to an increase in the Chinese population in the area, or even some trend that draws Chinese American parents back to their cultural roots. But what’s striking about the student body of Yu Ming is how many students aren’t Chinese. Roughly half of Yu Ming students are Asian American; an additional twenty-three per cent are “two or more races” (the bizarre institutional term given to multiracial kids). The remaining students are split relatively evenly between Black, Latino and white. Only about thirty per cent of kindergarteners at Yu Ming speak Mandarin when they get to the school; others come from households that speak Afrikaans, Mongolian, Russian, Yoruba. Sue Park, the school’s head (who has the odd title of C.E.O.), is Korean American, and does not speak Mandarin, nor can she read or write in Chinese.
Park has a vision for her school that differs drastically from that of other language-immersion schools, which often cater to a single ethnic population. “We want to be in line with the diversity of the county that we’re in,” she told me when we met in a small conference room at Yu Ming. “We need to be serving more students that are low-income and historically underserved and marginalized.” This is typical boilerplate for educational administrators these days, especially those at schools with envy-inducing test scores. But, regardless of how you might feel about the sincerity of her words, she and the school have successfully increased the number of Black, Latino, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students who attend Yu Ming. Seats at the school are handed out via a lottery system, with the first thirty per cent of seats reserved for children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
Raquel Sanchez and Moises Galvan, self-described working-class Mexican immigrants who work as a housecleaner and handyman, respectively, in Oakland, have a daughter named Violeta who just entered the first grade at Yu Ming. Violeta’s enrollment was part Galvan’s long-term plan to have his daughter learn Mandarin, but they found out about Yu Ming mostly by chance—Sanchez was dropping her nephew off at a nearby school when she saw “a lot of Asians” standing outside Yu Ming. Later, when she found out from one of her clients, a former Yu Ming teacher, that it was an immersion school, she began the process of getting Violeta into kindergarten there. “China is a growing country,” Sanchez told me, “and maybe this will set her up for success.”
The school’s academic reputation also factored into the couple’s decision. “We are not professionals, Sanchez said. “Back in Mexico, we were not really educated on how the system works. But, as parents, we always want the best for our child.” Sanchez said she did some research about Yu Ming and came up with contingency plans in case Violeta did not get in. Today, she is in contact with the other Latino families at Yu Ming, who she says share “common ideas”—they want to find “the best possible school” that will help their children be bi- or trilingual.
Yu Ming, then, presents a different form of élite academic education. Unlike test-in magnet schools like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science in New York City, Yu Ming does not screen its students, except to insure that a certain percentage of them come from low-income backgrounds. The school is free and open to everyone in the state of California, with preference given to local students. All you have to do for your kid to receive the best education in the Bay Area is put them in a classroom where their teachers will not speak English for most of the school day. But the people who are willing to do that and push for their child to go to a charter school will always be a self-selecting group, regardless of their class or ethnic background.
In nearly every community in America, schools compete for students. Private schools compete with public districts, the districts compete with the charters, the charters compete with the parochial schools. In California, where a school system’s funding depends on attendance as well as enrollment, each student effectively becomes a commodity—one whose value increases the more consistently they come to school—which means the school districts are largely fighting over a pool of high-performing kids.
Last year, the city of Piedmont, an island of extreme wealth completely ensconced within the borders of Oakland, opened up spots in its exclusive and overwhelmingly white school system for students from the surrounding areas. The measure was touted as a diversity effort—which, at some level, it was—but the more sobering reality was that even Piedmont was losing students, and needed to replace them with children from Oakland. This meant that Oakland’s school district, in turn, would lose the funding those students would have guaranteed.
The battle between public district schools and charters has been fought over many fronts, and each locality has its own version. But, in places like Oakland, where roughly thirty per cent of children attend a charter school, and where both district and charter schools are struggling financially and academically, the fight is simple enough. There are only so many kids, and there is only so much money. The argument for charters is that parents should have more choices, and that competition drives scholastic innovation. The argument against them is that, as long as charters continue to lure students away from the districts, the districts are doomed to be cash-strapped and low-performing.
An assessment of Yu Ming in 2020 found that only sixteen per cent of students were classified as “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” compared with seventy-four per cent in the surrounding district. This measurement actually constituted an improvement for the school: in 2014, only eight per cent of students came from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. (Today, that number has risen to twenty-seven per cent.) One can, as I do, believe that Park and the board at Yu Ming sincerely want more poor students to attend—as is reflected in the fact that nearly a third of this year’s kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced-price meals—and still acknowledge that Yu Ming largely draws from a middle-class and wealthier base of families in a city where public-school kids are typically poor.