YingHua International School, a private elementary school in Princeton, appoints new executive director.

By Nokware Knight

Before last year, Kristin Epstein lacked a formal background in education administration. She spoke no Mandarin. The West Windsor resident had no connection to Chinese culture.

This past May, she was appointed executive director of the YingHua International School, a Mandarin language nonprofit private elementary in Princeton.

People often become slightly perplexed when they hear this, Epstein said, but the role is a natural fit.

Epstein grew up in Atlanta, raised by her father, an atmospheric scientist, and her mother, a homemaker. She earned an environmental engineering degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree from John Hopkins, and worked as an engineer for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home mom and full-time educational volunteer and advocate. Her husband, John, is an ophthalmologist at Princeton Eye Group.

About five years ago, around the same time Epstein re-started the Princeton Area Alumni Association, she heard about a group trying to start a Mandarin charter school in the area — the Princeton International Academy Charter School.

She volunteered as a board member, confident from the experience gained as the Alumni Association president. To prepare she completed board member training and a six-week public charter school management training program at the state Department of Education in Trenton.

“I was literally on the school board of a charter school that didn’t exist yet,” she said. Faced with strong resistance from the Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro and South Brunswick, the communities that the charter school would have served, the school ultimately failed to gain the necessary approvals, but Epstein became intrigued by the idea.

Last year, she enrolled the younger of her two daughters into YingHua — her 10-year-old daughter was too old to attend. Her reasoning: she would learn all the same things she would in a public school setting, but would also pick up a new language at a young enough age that a foreign language can be absorbed as easily as English.

Bonnie Liao, the school’s founding director, who was the founder of the failed PIACS, was familiar with Epstein’s reputation. Immediately, she asked Epstein to become director of development, at YingHua, where she worked on marketing and fundraising. At the same time the school’s former executive director wanted to step back into a part-time role. Epstein was then appointed full-time executive director to fill the gap.

Her day-to-day duties involve general management, administrative duties (policies, billing, contracts), and policy, not the academic duties of a principal. She has no problems communicating with staff members, who are bi-lingual in English.

The school currently hosts students from three years old to third grade. Epstein is partially tasked with managing the school’s planned expansion through sixth grade, as well as increasing enrollment in general. A separate director designs the academic curriculum.

For Epstein, most of the adjustment comes from moving from a large, well-funded, and relatively prestigious public school system to a small, privately funded school.

Like many small private schools, YingHua has fewer resources but more flexibility than its larger, publically funded counterparts.

YingHua can teach music or let students play sports but simply does not have the bulk for larger team programs.

When something isn’t working, however, or the teachers want to change course, there is little red tape to hinder them. When something works better than expected, they can double down.

The school program is run on an inquiry-based curriculum, in which the students follow a new theme each semester. Last fall, the theme was “folk tales.” Students read material, completed projects, and played games related to folk tales from different cultures, with a heavy emphasis on Native Americans.

Then a month was added to the curriculum unit for the students to study their own individual heritage. “We really make a point to not do only Chinese culture,” said Epstein. All the teachers are from China, but only 30 to 40 percent of the students speak Mandarin at home.

Non-Chinese families tend to bring their children to the school specifically because they want them to learn Chinese. Starting in first grade, English class accounts for about 10 percent of the curriculum. By sixth grade, classes are 50 percent in English and 50 percent in Mandarin.

“A lot of people found us on the internet, or through word of mouth, because they were looking for a Chinese school,” Epstein said. “Others just happen to see or hear about the school, usually through the annual Communiversity fair on Nassau street in Princeton.”

“We are one of the few cultures or countries that doesn’t do this regularly,” Epstein said, pointing out that if you go to Europe, kids speak multiple languages — as do some of the parents who send their kids to YingHua.

A parent of another YingHua student told her that in n Iran it was normal for children to learn French in school and speak Farsi at home. For them, it is a continuation of the norm.

Most of the local Mandarin-speaking population, Epstein said, are first-generation immigrants. They usually bring their children to YingHua because it uses the Chinese national math curriculum on top of state educational standards.

They worry, though about assimilation — that their children will not become Americanized enough. “The Chinese families are actually nervous that their children won’t learn English well enough,” Epstein said. “The people who speak English at home are less worried about that. It’s almost easier to sell it to them.”

Epstein said her eight-year-old daughter, who started at the school last year as a second grader, seems to speak fluently in Mandarin with her teachers. But she expresses herself in English differently from her big sister or most other second-graders.

“She almost expresses herself poetically,” Epstein said.

When Epstein first enrolled her daughter in YingHua, she thought it would be “really cool” that she would be learning a second language. As an unintended benefit, she said she believes her child will also have a leg up when she joins working world some years down the road.

“A lot of people say it’s the language of the future,” Epstein said of Mandarin. “Kind of the like the future economy. It isn’t the future. It’s really right now. What I found is that employers not only need somebody who can speak another language. They need somebody who can do a technical field in another language. Like, if you can be an engineer and speak Chinese, but have the American sensibilities and be culturally sensitive to the Chinese. Those are the people they really need.”