The Hoa Mai preschool fulfills a dream for Vietnamese parents who wanted to preserve their children's ties to their culture. It also offers opportunities to low-income children in the city's new pre-school program.

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This post has been updated to clarify details about Hoa Mai tuition.

A new dual-language preschool has opened its doors next to the Mount Baker light rail station, the first in the city to offer instruction in both English and Vietnamese.

The Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool is part of a program approved by voters last year aimed at making high-quality preschool available to all Seattle children, regardless of income. It also fulfills a dream of Vietnamese-American parents who wanted to maintain their children’s ties to their language and culture.

“We are really grateful that Hoa Mai exists,” said Vu Le, whose son, Viet, attends the school, which opened its doors two weeks ago. “There’s only so much that I can do to teach him Vietnamese. It takes more than just one person. He needs to learn in a structured environment where he’s surrounded by people speaking the language.”

In Johnson Nguyen’s classroom at the Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool, three- and four-year-olds sing a Vietnamese song about a butterfly. (Ben Stocking / The Seattle Times)

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Other programs offer weekend classes in Vietnamese, Le said, but Hoa Mai is the first to offer an all-day option.

Two of Hoa Mai’s classes, for 3- and 4-year-olds, are part of the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP). The school also offers toddler class for 2-year-olds who aren’t old enough for the city-sponsored classes. Tuition is on a sliding scale tied to family income (The application guidelines are here.)

This is the first year of the four-year SPP pilot program approved by voters, with 280 students enrolled in 15 locations around the city. By the final year, the city expects to enroll 2,000 children in 100 classrooms. It also hopes to add bilingual programs in other languages, most likely Spanish and Chinese.

“There’s a dramatic amount of research about how great bilingual programs are for kids,” said Rachel Schulkin, the SPP community outreach manager. “They help kids develop higher cognitive skills as well as better math and social skills.”

If the pilot proves successful, the city will go back to the voters for additional funding, with the hope of expanding it so that more children can participate, Schulkin said.

Three Seattle organizations joined forces to create Hoa Mai: the Vietnamese Friendship Association, Sound Child Care Solutions and Artspace, which recently opened in the new building in which the school is located. Most of the units are artist lofts and galleries.

The Hoa Mai classrooms are decorated with Asian lanterns and umbrellas and filled with picture books written in both English and Vietnamese. At lunchtime, the kids try their best to negotiate eating with chopsticks. And, in both languages, signs above the sinks encourage kids to be “germ busters” by washing their hands before eating.

“We’re trying to close the achievement gap by making high-quality educational opportunities available to all children regardless of their background,” said Gloria Hodge, Hoa Mai’s director.

Hoa Mai had hoped to open in September but getting the new building pre-school ready, in accordance with state rules, proved more time-consuming than expected.

At the moment, most of the children participating do not come from Vietnamese families, but Hodge expects that to change after the holidays, when more children will arrive to fill the school’s 47 spots.

Gavin Sullivan is pleased that his 3-year-old son, Gibran, will get the chance to learn a third language at Hoa Mai. (Gibran’s mom is from Colombia and his dad speaks Spanish.)

“We are huge fans of Hoa Mai,” Sullivan said. “We really like the team there, and it’s an idyllic scene of diversity — black kids, white kids, Latino kids, Asian kids. It’s the future of Seattle right there, under the light rail station.”