October 7, 2007
Diversity as Normal as Speaking Chinese
By MICHAEL WINERIP
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.
“I’m not sure she’ll totally get it all,” says her mother, Carlene, whose college degree is in early childhood studies. “But our hope is she’ll have a love for language and continue Mandarin and Spanish until she’s 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 it’s 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 defender’s 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 they’re the minority.
“If my son walked in and saw you,” she says, pointing to a reporter’s shirt, “he wouldn’t say you’re white, he’d say you’re 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. Kinsale’s 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 state’s public high schools.
For the Kinsales there was only one drawback: Millburn is 1 percent black. The public defender’s office where Mr. Kinsale works is racially mixed, and his colleagues who lived in integrated towns voiced their surprise. “Many of my husband’s co-workers live in South Orange or Maplewood,” says Ms. Kinsale. “A lot said, ‘You’re sure Millburn’s what you want?’ ”
They’re not. “It’s 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. “It’s good that they see other black families, but it’s not perfect either,” Ms. Kinsale says. “They’re seeing either all white or all black, and I’m 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 America’s racial divides, Mr. Kinsale grew up in Queens, attended virtually all-black Andrew Jackson High, then went to virtually all-white Williams College. “I’m 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.
“It’s a competitive world, and I want my children to be competitive,” Mr. Kinsale says. “If they’re 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, “I’m 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 don’t 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.
It’s 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 book’s 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 master’s 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 Sidney’s time at Bilingual Buds from two to three half-days a week.
“I’m not making much,” she says, “and most will go to the extra day for Sidney, but to me, that’s worth it.”