New Jersey: Diversity as Normal as Speaking Chinese

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Oct 10 15:27:39 UTC 2007

October 7, 2007 Parenting

Diversity as Normal as Speaking Chinese


AT the ripe old age of 3, Sidney Kinsale is in her second year of learning
two foreign languages. She attends a preschool here on Tuesdays,
Wednesdays and Thursdays where she learns Chinese. Then on Fridays, she
goes to a second preschool in Scotch Plains where she learns Spanish. Im
not sure shell totally get it all, says her mother, Carlene, whose college
degree is in early childhood studies. But our hope is shell have a love
for language and continue Mandarin and Spanish until shes fluent. The
Kinsales are not alone. The Mandarin preschool here, Bilingual Buds, has
grown to 110 students from 10 in three years. The Scotch Plains school,
Little Lingoes, which opened 15 months ago, now serves 50 students, ages 1
to 8, teaching Spanish and Mandarin.

But while the Kinsales are delighted with the language training Sidney was
at a backyard birthday party recently, swinging and counting in Mandarin,
when a Chinese-American woman commented on her perfect accent that is not
the only reason the parents like the two preschools. Ms. Kinsale says that
what she wanted for Sidney was a high-quality, nurturing, racially diverse
school. At the two language schools, she has come to appreciate the mix of
Asian, white, black and Hispanic children.  People who start their
children on a language so young understand its a multicultural world and
they want their children to be part of it, she says.

Ms. Kinsale, 42, and her husband, Stirling, 50, an attorney with the state
public defenders office in Newark, live in Millburn, a predominantly white
town. As a black couple, that has meant constantly working at finding the
diversity they want for their children. I want my children to feel
diversity is normal, says Ms. Kinsale, who also has a son, Stirling Jr.,
6. I prefer my children do not recognize this early that there are
situations when theyre the minority. If my son walked in and saw you, she
says, pointing to a reporters shirt, he wouldnt say youre white, hed say
youre a blue man with glasses.

This is new to them, and they are still figuring it out. Until two years
ago, they lived in Orange, N.J., a community that is three-quarters black.
They were happy there, they say, with a nice house that they spent a lot
of time renovating and a racially mixed group of neighbors. But when
Stirling was 4, they began looking ahead to school and studied the state
test results. At Orange High School, more than half the students did not
pass the 2005/2006 state proficiency test in English, and three-quarters
failed math. I looked at the report and looked at my husband and said, Do
you mind selling this house?  says Ms. Kinsale. They were determined to
find the best school district for what they could afford. Taxes and real
estate were so high, she says. They pored over test scores and real estate
listings in suburbs that were a reasonable commute to Mr. Kinsales Newark
office and found a three-bedroom home in Millburn.  At Millburn High, 98
percent scored proficient in English, 97 percent in math, and the school
ranked first in SAT scores among the states public high schools.

For the Kinsales there was only one drawback: Millburn is 1 percent black.
The public defenders office where Mr. Kinsale works is racially mixed, and
his colleagues who lived in integrated towns voiced their surprise. Many
of my husbands co-workers live in South Orange or Maplewood, says Ms.
Kinsale. A lot said, Youre sure Millburns what you want? Theyre not. Its
been two years, and I do question if Millburn is the right place, she
says. My husband and I felt whatever we do, there are pros and cons, and
maybe these are the cons we choose to deal with. Our hope is with church
and different cultural events, our children will recognize who they are
and not feel intimidated or self-conscious.

Sundays, the Kinsales attend Bethany Baptist, a black church in Newark,
and Thursday evenings, Mr. Kinsale takes Stirling to the church gym for a
sports night. Its good that they see other black families, but its not
perfect either, Ms. Kinsale says. Theyre seeing either all white or all
black, and Im looking for diversity. This bothers Mr. Kinsale less than
his wife. While she spent the first half of her life in Trinidad and
Tobago and was not exposed to Americas racial divides, Mr. Kinsale grew up
in Queens, attended virtually all-black Andrew Jackson High, then went to
virtually all-white Williams College. Im malleable, he says. Williams was
a big adjustment a lot of classmates had trust funds that kicked in at 21.
But I adapted and I survived and I enjoyed it.

Its a competitive world, and I want my children to be competitive, Mr.
Kinsale says. If theyre going to be successful in a white-dominated
society, they need to be exposed to this, and I believe they will excel.
He says that while his wife focuses on how people will treat their
children as part of a minority, Im more confident about their ability to
fit in and assimilate. At Bilingual Buds, Sharon Huang, the owner, says
about a third of the 110 children come from Chinese-American families who
dont speak Mandarin, but want their children to do so; a third are
families of all backgrounds who have adopted a Chinese child; and a third,
like the Kinsales, have no Chinese connection.

Its total immersion classes are taught by bilingual, Chinese- or
Taiwanese-born teachers who speak Mandarin the whole time. Lessons are
familiar, so children understand the context. One recent morning, the
teacher, Jing Zhou, read them Jin Fa Nu Hai Er He San Zhi Xiong Goldilocks
and the Three Bears. When Ms. Zhou showed them the books cover, Sidney
said, I have this book. And when Ms. Zhou started reading, Sidney said, I
have the same pages. In the room were white, black and Asian dolls, and
even the three stuffed bears Ms. Zhou used to tell the story were diverse:
Daddy Bear was beige; Mommy Bear, brown; Baby Bear, green. The teachers
are better educated than those at most preschools half have a masters
degree making Bilingual Buds more costly. Five days of preschool, from 9
a.m. to 2:30 p.m., is $12,870 a year.

Until now, Ms. Kinsale has been a stay-at-home mom, but last week she
started working part time as an aide at another preschool and increased
Sidneys time at Bilingual Buds from two to three half-days a week. Im not
making much, she says, and most will go to the extra day for Sidney, but
to me, thats worth it.

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