The Academy of the Pacific Rim takes Chinese very seriously.
Chinese class is required from 7th grade until senior year at the public charter school, which serves 5th to 12th graders. Students tidy the school together and start class with a distinctly Asian call to order.
“Qi lai (rise)! Jing li (bow)!"
For Hyde Park senior Marcus Vilmé, 17, he was initially skeptical about learning Chinese. “As the years went on, I found the importance of it,” he said. “It’s rare for an African American to know a foreign language. Chinese is modernized and a very big part of America. … When I’m in college, it’s easier to find what I want to do with Chinese as my background.”
Vilmé will be attending Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, after being accepted by early decision. While he has not decided on a major, he is interested in Asian studies and music engineering. “I can’t fall asleep without music,” he grinned.
The school’s mission empowers urban students to realize their full potential by combining the high academic standards of the east with the individualism of the west. Co-founder Robert Guen studied education in Taiwan, observing how the longer school day and classroom setup could benefit students in America. The school received its charter in 1995 and opened in 1997, making it one of the oldest charter schools in Massachusetts, said Susan Thompson, executive director of APR.
“I’m really accustomed to the people here,” said Richard Njorose, 16, a junior from Roslindale. “I consider them like family. I couldn’t just leave the school and be happy somewhere else. Even though there’s a lot of homework and it’s really tiresome, it’s good preparation for college.”
All of APR’s class of 2012 was college-bound, attending schools including Brown University, Johns Hopkins University and Smith College. The 500 students enrolled are mostly individuals of color at 76 percent — African-American students represent 57 percent of the school population — and 53 percent qualify for subsidized school lunches for low-income families. APR does not charge tuition, as it is funded by the state and admits students based on a lottery.
“Tons of people come back from college and say that in their freshman classes, they’ve already studied the material senior year,” said Ariell Christian, 17, a senior from Dorchester.
APR’s school day starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., which is 800 hours or 50 more days of instruction compared to students attending Boston Public Schools. Teachers form close relationships with students as mentors, advisors and extracurricular sponsors.
“I gained a good three mothers in last four years,” said Michael Holliday, 18, a senior from Dorchester. “The first one was Miss (Yong) Li. Last year for Mother’s Day, I cooked for her and two other people at her house. The principal (Jenne Colasacco Grant) talks to you like a best friend. And the counselor Miss (Doreen) Kelly-Carney is the happiest person I’ve ever met.”
The ultimate test of APR’s Chinese immersion is its exchange program with Beijing No. 80 school. Holliday and Christian went in April 2012, while Njorose and Vilmé will go for the first time this April.
“It’s just fascinating to me,” Christian said. “Everyone is so nice. There’s lots of food. It was warm and appreciative.”
Holliday stayed with the family of a Beijing No. 80 school student and spent 20 minutes trying to identify which towel he could shower with. However, his Chinese classes at APR paid off when it was mealtime. “At the dinner table, I knew what everything was called,” he said. “It felt like I was at home.”