No culture gap

La Cañada has several types of schools, with multiple elementary and high schools, public and private. However, one school stands apart from the others: More than five years ago, four mothers began the Foothill Chinese School, the only one of its kind in the city.

"Basically, the thinking was they should form a Chinese school to try and spread the Chinese culture and teach children Chinese," said Liping Fan, a member of the school's board.

They started out with about 10 students. Now anywhere from 70 to 80 students participate in the school's program at a cost of about $1,100 per school year. Originally, the school offered a single two-hour session on Thursday afternoons. Today there are classes offered Monday through Friday after regular school hours.

Foothill Chinese School students are taught how to read, write and speak Chinese in traditional classroom experience. They are also exposed to other aspects of Chinese culture, including art, dance and food, through a number of hands-on activities.

Students recite poetry in Chinese, create art and make dumplings to enhance and apply the learning experience.

"We want our kids to have a chance to be in an environment to study Chinese," said Wei Mi, also a member of the school's board. "I speak Chinese to my son at home and he never replies. He understands some, but I cannot teach him. This environment brings him together with other people trying to speak Chinese."

That environment could be shifted soon though.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Foothill Chinese School moved into five classrooms at the La Cañada Unified School District site on Cornishon Avenue after spending the first four years at the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge. One of the classrooms they moved into had been abandoned for years, Fan said.

"We had to do all the cleaning and pay to get the room painted," Mi said. "Now [the district] wants to get this room back."

Mike Leininger, the school district's assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, said if Foothill Chinese School officials want to sit down and discuss renting the rooms on a monthly basis, they will do so.

"They rent the rooms for three hours in the afternoon," Leininger said. "The fact is they were told from the very beginning that if I could get a monthly lease, then they would be moving out."

Foothill Chinese School Principal Holly Huiyi Li said they love the classrooms they are in now because they are spacious. Also, one of the classrooms has a kitchen, which gets regular use for hands-on activities. She attributes some of the program's growth to the facilities' size, which serves the school well.

Fred Finnigan has two daughters attending the school.

"My wife is Chinese, and we went to China a couple of times," Finnigan said. "We wanted to give the girls that part of their heritage. They have gone back to China with us and were able to communicate and relate with the culture better after being in this school."

Student Jordan Young said he loves learning how to speak and write Chinese. His favorite part of the school is taking the language tests each week.

"I have been to China three times, and I think I relate better to Chinese culture now," Young said.

Alice Zhai has been attending Foothill Chinese for the past four years. She said the school has grown a lot since she started there. And her Chinese language skills have grown.

"I can speak to my grandparents a lot easier now, and I can communicate with others too," Zhai said.

Li has taught at the school for four years and for the past three years has been pulling double-duty as the school's principal. She started out as a chemist but later realized how much she loved children and teaching.

"We all have that innate desire to learn about another language or culture," Li said. "My job as a teacher is to keep that desire alive."

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