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Saturday language schools growing in popularity

For most kids, the weekends are prime time to play and catch up on cartoons. But for thousands of children across the country and here in the Northwest, Saturdays mean waking up early to head to another school where they sharpen their academic teeth and learn a language that ties them to their cultural heritage. 

These are weekend cultural heritage language schools that teach a wide range of languages, including German, Finnish, French, and Japanese. The programs that serve the greatest number of students are the Chinese language schools. The largest one in the country, called Northwest Chinese School, operates out of Newport High School in Bellevue.

More than a thousand students between the ages of 4 and 18 attend the Bellevue school every Saturday, and take classes in everything from Mandarin and advanced calculus to art classes.

'Don’t make me do it!’

Florencia Erwin and her son Nathan Erwin are seen in this photo.

Jared and Florencia Erwin, parents of four children, send their two oldest to the Northwest Chinese School.

Every Saturday morning, their sons yell, "Don't make me do it!" when their parents wake them up. Nathan Erwin, 8, is not embracing his Mandarin class. 

"I don't even understand any of it! What does ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’ mean?” he said.

With China being the major global player that it is, Florencia says it's important for her children to be familiar with the culture. She wants her kids to be challenged.  

"The Chinese language is very difficult. I want then to understand that not everything is easy. Sometimes you have to work even harder,” she said.

Not just for Chinese-Americans

Jared Erwin is a white guy from Minnesota. Florencia is from Peru. They live in Redmond.  What the Erwins are doing is part of a growing trend over the past five years. Parents see how well Asian-American students perform academically. They see them getting more college degrees than any other ethnic group, and they want some of that success to rub off on to their children. 

Today, about 5 percent of the students at the Northwest Chinese School are non-Asian. Chinese schools across the country are also seeing more students who come from other backgrounds. 

Kevin Ma, who teaches a math, logic and English class at the Northwest Chinese School, is seen with his students.

Kevin Ma, a Chinese-American, was a student at the Northwest Chinese School for 10 years. Now he teaches a course that covers math, logic and English. His students are between 4 and 7 years old.

Ma remembers being very surprised to see his first non-Chinese student a few years ago. Now, he says, it's the norm. 

"Right now, I have so many students from so many different backgrounds. I have Caucasians, I have Indian-Americans, Korean-Americans, Japanese-Americans,” he said.

Ma is blown away by what these kids can do.

"I have kids who come in at the beginning of the year, and they've never done math in their life. And by the end of the semester, they are doing multiplication, and they are 4 years old. I have kids who don’t know how to read, and by the end of the year, they are doing book reports. The progress they make is just amazing!” he said.

It is impressive, and so is the amount of homework students have to complete during the week on top of their regular schoolwork.

Too much work for kids?

Is it all just a little too much?

A young student at the Northwest Chinese School is shown holding a picture she drew in art class. Students are learning how to draw three dimensional images.

Fan Ping sometimes asks that question. Ping grew up in Shanghai where the school day ran from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. These days, Ping lives in Issaquah and has a daughter who attends the Northwest Chinese School. She likes that her child is being challenged, but doesn't want to push her too hard. 

"Sometimes I feel doubtful when they are frustrated with their homework, when they are like, 'Oh my God, why do I have to spend so much time on Chinese?' And we do have hesitations sometimes, like we are giving them too much burden. But if they stay in this program, they will accumulate knowledge and friendship from this community, which I think is precious."

Nathan Erwin is starting to make friends. Not all of his classes are torture. He loves his math class, which is much more advanced than what he studies in school during the week. 

Even though the precious hours of a Saturday are spent inside, Nathan and his classmates don't completely surrender; they take full advantage of the breaks between classes. 

"There's a vending machine and our parents usually give us one dollar. We spend it on Doritos or something candyish, and we eat. Or I just play tag in the hallways,” he said.

Yes, they are in school, but it's still the weekend.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.