Every Friday at Eden Prairie's Central Middle School (CMS), the hallways empty of the school's weekday students. But on Saturdays, a different, smaller cohort sets up shop, ready to learn.
From 1-5 p.m., the 100-odd students of the Minnesota Huaxia Chinese School settle into CMS's gyms and classrooms to study math and writing, play badminton and basketball, and, of course, learn Chinese.
Huaxia has operated out of CMS, 8025 School Road in Eden Prairie, since its founding in 2004. With little advertising − the school relies on word-of-mouth for recruitment− there are consistently around 100 students enrolled in classes every semester, according to parents and board members Cindy Wang and Jingjing Brown. Around 95% of students are from Eden Prairie or attend the city's schools, Brown estimated.
Wang and Brown have each served one year on Huaxia's eight-person board which, alongside two principals, 12 teachers and numerous volunteers, runs Huaxia. When the school started in 2004, its mission was narrow, Wang said, but it's grown in the last 15.
"The main purpose was to teach our own kids Chinese, but it grew, and we have more programs and classes for everybody," she explained.
The core classes are still Chinese − written and spoken classes from kindergarten levels through Advanced Placement (AP) classes − but the school also offers math and English writing courses, badminton and basketball, and even drawing classes. The classes range in cost from $110-$200 per semester, but the point isn't to turn a profit, Brown said.
"We don't make any money," she said. "It started off with parents who wanted their kids to know their heritage."
For family and future
The reasons parents have for signing their children up for Huaxia's Saturday lessons are numerous and varied. For three parents of Huaxia students − Qin Qin, of Minnetonka; Yanjin Xie, of Eden Prairie; and Shari Zhou, of Maple Grove − it boils down to family connections, future opportunities and learning potential.
All three agreed that learning Chinese will help their children grow closer to their family, particularly when visiting relatives in China or speaking with grandparents who may speak Chinese more comfortably than English. Zhou noted that being bilingual also helps children's brains grow and develop and is an asset for future careers.
"I think it'll open more opportunity," Zhou said.
In another way, Huaxia helps students from around the southwest metro connect and create community. Qin's elementary school-aged daughter, who started classes at Huaxia this fall, is one of very few Chinese-American students at her school, Qin said, and at Huaxia she can connect with the broader Chinese-American community.
"My daughter likes to come here because she can make a lot of friends," Qin added.
When Xie first signed her children up for Huaxia four years ago, they weren't thrilled about the idea of school on Saturday, asking, "Why do we have to come to Chinese school when other kids are playing?" she said. But their experiences in Chinese class and on the badminton court have changed their minds, Xie added.
"I think they enjoy Chinese school now," she said.
Wang, whose middle school-aged daughter is currently enrolled in Huaxia, understands Huaxia's value in part because she's experienced what can happen without language classes. Her older daughter − who's in her mid-20s − never formally studied Chinese and while she understands when her mother speaks Chinese, she doesn't speak it herself anymore, Wang said.
"When we came to America, she was 5, so I thought her Chinese would be OK," Wang explained, but she's learned otherwise. "If I want my children to speak Chinese with me, I have to teach them."
From classroom to community
It's not just students who gather in CMS's hallways every Saturday. Some parents stick around to attend Huaxia's adult seminars or play in the school's recreational badminton, volleyball or basketball games, after their scholars have vanished into their classrooms. The sports games run from 1-3 p.m. and are open to all; each player pitches in a few dollars to help cover facility costs, Wang said. The seminars are free and cover topics from financial literacy to music history.
On Sept. 28, musician, composer and Carleton College music professor Hong Gao spoke to a room of around 15 people about the pipa, a four-stringed lute, which she has played for 46 years. Only recently have Carleton students been able to major in Chinese instruments, Gao told the listeners.
For Brown, Huaxia's Chinese lessons and its community programming all point toward the same goal: That students learn about their heritage and embrace their identities while being "ambassadors" to the broader Minnesotan community. She emphasized that Huaxia is open to all students, not only those who already speak some Chinese.
"America, it's a melting pot," Brown said. "We want to learn, too. And at the same time, we want to be known."