What started as a group of parents wanting their children to learn their ethnic heritage is celebrating the 20th anniversary of being a school that teaches the Chinese language and culture in Naperville.
The Ray Chinese School is a nonprofit that charges only enough tuition to cover the costs of teachers, classroom space and materials.
"The tuition is the only income source of our school operation," said principal Zhongmin Jin. "The ballpark number is roughly about $5 per hour per student and it is a set fee for each school semester, which runs about 16 weeks."
About 1,300 students attend classes at two District 203 and 204 schools. Courses in Chinese and other subjects range from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 with college credit.
In addition to more than a dozen levels of Chinese language instruction, classes in English also are available. Courses are presented in either Chinese or English and instructors are bilingual.
"When we started, 20 years ago, it was just some parents who wanted their kids to learn Chinese so we don't lose our heritage," said assistant principal Xueqing Tang. "We just wanted to teach our own kids. But now that the school has so many students, paid teachers are hired so we can have the most professional teachers in our schools."
Tang said about 60 teachers provide one or two hours in the classroom per weekend, but some math teachers will instruct four one-hour classes in the morning as well as in the afternoon.
"We just got Illinois Board of Education-certified as an ethnic school," Tang said. "What that means is our credits can be accepted by the school district."
In addition to Chinese, English and math, there are courses in geometry, painting, martial arts, basketball, chess strategies, cooking and dance, including ballet, belly dance and cardio-dance for adults.
About 1,000 students attend Saturday classes at District 203's Kennedy Junior High School. Others take Sunday courses at Still Middle School, one of seven District 204 middle schools.
"We just opened our new Learning Center, very close to Kennedy," Tang said. "It's so new, we haven't yet had an opening ceremony."
The new facility, at 6442 College Road in Lisle, is intended for weekday and summer classes.
The Ray Chinese School has an annual budget of about $475,000. In addition to teacher salaries, it pays each school district about $1,500 per week to rent facilities.
Jin said the school does not receive any funding or grants from either governmental or non-governmental organizations.
"Sometimes we'll get some funding from the city of Naperville when the budget is not so tight," Tang said. "But we never applied for federal or state funding. We feel that we can maintain without asking for any public money from taxpayers at all."
Tang said parents and others volunteer in various ways.
"Some teach just because they want to share the Chinese culture," she said. "We also ask every parent to volunteer in some way at the school two or three times a semester. There's always a parents team to help out at the front desk or in a classroom, especially if the children are very small."
Tang and her husband, a former principal at the school, are both Chinese immigrants who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
"The English is our adopted language," Tang said. "You can tell we still have issues sometimes in talking."
For second-generation children growing up in a Chinese household, learning their parents' native language is no easier than learning English was for their parents.