Chinese-immersion charter school in West Columbia plans major expansion

January 15, 2017
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The State
January 15, 2017

Students in Lige Zhao’s class danced in a circle as they greeted each other as part of a recent lesson in Chinese language at East Point Academy.

Dancing instilled not only the words, but the impact of what was said, she said.

That practice is common at the independent charter school in West Columbia with a steadily growing enrollment since its opening in 2011.

“The culture and language of China are very much fused,” head of school Winnie Johnson said.

East Point’s emphasis on immersion – teaching half its classes solely in Chinese – is so popular that school leaders are preparing for a $30 million expansion to serve a student body that’s expected to swell to 850 in 2020 from 535 today.

“We’re busting at the seams,” said Johnson, who’s “head of school,” or principal. “We are out of space.”

Plans call for a new 72,000-square-foot facility for kindergarten through fifth grades at a 17-acre site in fall 2018. The construction on Chris Drive near the intersection of I-26 and U.S. 378 will replace classrooms now partly in a former strip mall a few miles south.

Meanwhile, the former Northside Baptist Church hall that the school also occupies two miles east of the new facility will become home for sixth- through eighth-graders.

“It’s so significant for us,” Beth Burke Richardson, vice-chairwoman of the school board of directors, said of an expansion financed through a combination of bank and federal loans.

Richardson, a lawyer, chose the school for her three children because she considers it important to learn about culture through studying language.

“Immersion is challenging, but knowing a second language today is important,” she said.

Students spend half their day with their Mandarin-speaking teacher and half with their English-speaking teacher.

East Point is one of three dozen independent but taxpayer-supported charter schools in South Carolina. It is the only one with curriculum in any classroom focusing on Chinese.

Its facilities look traditional on the outside, but directional signs, student art displays and many conversations inside are bilingual.

The concentration is on Mandarin Chinese, the official language of a Asian nation with several dialects, the earth’s largest population and that is a major American trading partner.

That emphasis was chosen by school founders, some of whom are University of South Carolina professors whose heritage is Chinese, because of the nation’s ties to South Carolina.

From 2008 through 2016, commercial investment from China was $1.2 billion, state commerce spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said.

Creating a charter school seemed the best way to guide innovation than occurs in a traditional educational setting, officials said.

It allows “leeway to try new ways of teaching,” said Edward Davis, president of the school’s board of directors.

While allowed flexibility in instruction, charter schools are similar in other ways to traditional classrooms.

Attendance is free. But to continue receiving state aid, schools must meet standards and requirements for student testing and teacher qualifications.

Like many parent-teacher organizations, East Point’s supporters raise money to supplement student activities as well as provide bonuses and extra training for teachers.

East Point recruits Chinese-born teachers such as Zhao through a variety of contacts, including the Confucius Institute at USC that has an educational partnership with the Asian nation.

But its practices – and the quality of its students – also appeal to those who teach in English. “I can set expectations higher,” social studies teacher Carey Shofner said.

Davis’ four children attend classes there because “it’s going to set them up for many opportunities” in careers, the orthodontist said.

One challenge ahead is that there’s no similar instruction in any high school.

Some parents are encouraging East Point to add those grades. Discussions also are under way with nearby Lexington 1 and Richland 1 about providing such instruction, Davis said.

Meanwhile, coping with rising enrollment is a challenge that school leaders welcome.

“We’re a well-kept secret that is getting out,” Johnson said.

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