FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — In the spacious basement of her Urbana home, Li Zhou caught the eye of the preschoolers lying on the carpet in front of her.
She read them a picture book about kindness. The book was written in English, but before turning each page, Zhou addressed the children in Mandarin Chinese, describing drawings, asking questions and cracking jokes.
Zhou runs A&D Stars, a preschool Chinese immersion program and daycare for children ages 2-5. It opened in 2015.
She is also part of a group working to open a language immersion charter school in Frederick.
The MeriSTEM public charter school would offer streams in Spanish and Chinese and promote bilingualism in young children, according to a nearly 200-page application submitted to the Frederick County School Board earlier this year.
It would emphasize science, technology, engineering and math, and employ an “experiential learning” approach emphasizing hands-on activities.
The school would prioritize English language learners, who the founders hope will eventually make up 20% of the student body.
Victoria Thornton, who enrolled her 4-year-old twins in Zhou Nursery School in March 2021, did most of the writing for MeriSTEM’s application. She studied psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University and said she wants her kids to be bilingual even though she isn’t.
“Looking around Frederick, I just saw there’s obviously no opportunity for continued Mandarin immersion,” Thornton said. “So when I approached Li, I thought, ‘Maybe if she’s interested, we could start a charter school. … And she said, ‘You share the same dream as me.'”
Zhou and his colleagues do not actively teach Mandarin to their preschoolers. Instead, they aim to speak to them in Chinese for about 80% of the school day — although the breakdown varies from child to child, Zhou said, depending on their familiarity with the language.
Young children are “sponges,” Zhou said, and immersing them in a second language early gives them a much better chance of becoming fluent.
“They acquire it naturally,” Zhou said. “They don’t even have to think about it.”
About half of his current students are exposed to Mandarin at home, Zhou said. But even those who have no initial skills in Chinese learn it during their time in kindergarten. After three years with her, many children can hold a conversation in Mandarin, Zhou said.
But when they leave Zhou’s preschool and enter the Frederick County public school system, Zhou said, many students will likely lose touch with the language.
“I feel a bit sad for them. It’s a lost opportunity,” Zhou said. “Some come back to visit, and I can feel the difference.”
Originally, Thornton and Zhou said, the couple envisioned a school focused on Chinese immersion. Later they added a Spanish option, hoping it would appeal to more families and attract enough students to get started.
Public charter schools receive government funding, but they operate separately from the local school system and are responsible for paying many of their own bills.
Frederick County currently has four charter schools.
Zhou and Thornton applied to the school board in May for MeriSTEM with the goal of opening in fall 2023. The school’s name comes from a type of plant cell found at the tips of roots and branches .
The school board planned to discuss the proposal on Aug. 10, when it heard the recommendation from FCPS Superintendent Cheryl Dyson.
The district superintendent does not vote on whether to approve a charter school application, but his recommendation is a starting point for board discussions.
In its response to MeriSTEM’s application, Dyson noted that the bilingual immersion program would be unique for Frederick County and that the school would likely have strong community partnerships.
But she expressed concern about the school’s budget and the fact that she hadn’t nailed down a facility.
Dyson also noted that bilingual teachers are rare and said the founders did not develop a sufficient plan to translate teaching materials.
She recommended that the board deny MeriSTEM’s application.
Dyson’s comments were uploaded to BoardDocs, the school board’s site for sharing documents with the community, about a week before the Aug. 10 meeting.
Zhou and Thornton withdrew their candidacy soon after and are working to address Dyson’s concerns.
Both women said they weren’t dropping out of school. They plan to resubmit the application in about six months, Thornton said.
“We were basically told the app had to be bulletproof to be approved,” Thornton said.
In addition to Zhou and Thornton, 19 other people are listed on the app as “founding members”. They include a doctor, a physicist, a teacher, an engineer and a pastor from a Chinese church.
Zhou said most of the founding members were either the parents of his preschoolers or the parents of his long waiting list. Some people join the waiting list as soon as their children are born.
MeriSTEM’s application included letters of support from the Asian American Center of Frederick (AACF) and Centro Hispano de Frederick.
AACF Executive Director Elizabeth Chung and Centro Hispano Director Maria Shuck each wrote that their organizations would support MeriSTEM through community outreach and mentorship.
Both wrote that the school would be a valuable addition to the West Side of Frederick, where the founders said they hoped to settle.
In another letter of support, the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools (MAPCS) wrote that the school “has the expertise, momentum, commitment and community support to provide bilingual immersion and programming innovative and exemplary STEM to students and families in Frederick County.”
Additionally, the alliance wrote, MeriSTEM was one of two statewide founding groups chosen for its “mentorship cohort,” meaning Thornton, Zhou and others from the school would receive a year training and technical support from MAPCS.
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