CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (AP) — Four children, all born in Holland but now immersed in American culture, sat around a table covered with workbooks and papers and maps.
Their teacher, who addressed them in Dutch, tailored a lesson to a visitor who had just entered the room. If you were to send this gentleman an email, she asked, would you write it in formal or informal Dutch?
“Formeel Nederlands,” the children answered as one.
The teacher smiled. An ethnic community beamed. Greater Cleveland took another step into the global economy.
Dutch traders traversed the Great Lakes region long before Moses Cleaveland arrived to map a city. The Dutch are back, this time as representatives of companies like Philips Medical Systems, AkzoNobel, Stork Testing Laboratories and Univar chemicals.
As Holland-based companies dispatch a new generation to the city on Meer Erie, they do not send them into a cultural void. De Nederlandse School Cleveland, The Dutch School of Cleveland, has risen to meet the new families and the ethnic community they are energizing.
The five-year-old school, a lively mix of Dutch expatriate and Dutch American children, adds a new dimension to the Cleveland tradition of ethnic language schools. While preserving and fostering a culture, it also lays a foundation for international business and cultural exchange.
It does so subtly but surely, and in a language not spoken so regularly here in centuries.
Michael Sanders, a tall and blond-haired young father, arrived near the end of Dutch school on a recent Tuesday to see his three-year-old son peering out of the doorway of toddler class. “Pa-pa!”
Sanders directs global innovation projects for Avery Dennison, a corporation with a large presence in northeast Ohio and in Leiden, Holland. Transferred from Amsterdam to the Cleveland suburb of Mentor two years ago, he and his wife, Jana, were excited but nervous.
“I was wondering how the kids were going to keep the language,” he said. “Jana went online and said ‘Oh, Cleveland has a Dutch school.” I said ‘Awesome!'” (“Ontzagwekkend!”)
The Dutch business presence in Greater Cleveland has grown noticeably, especially in high-tech fields and advanced manufacturing. Some Dutch-owned companies, like Philips, employ more than 1,000 people. Others, like Quest Medical of Akron, are just getting starting.
The rise reflects the Dutch penchant for global commerce — the Netherlands is America’s third largest foreign investor. Enterprising Dutch immigrants play a role, as does a similar economic mix. More than a land of tulips and windmills, Holland excels at Cleveland specialties like medical imaging, laboratory testing and maritime trade.
This spring, a Dutch shipping giant is bringing international container service to the Port of Cleveland.
The Great Lakes Chapter of the Netherlands American Chamber of Commerce counts 29 Dutch-owned businesses in northeast Ohio, an all-time high.
Team Northeast Ohio, the region’s business attraction agency, would like to lure more Dutch companies, and the school helps. It offers an assimilation advantage not found in many other cities.
“That’s not going to make the deal, but it’s what we call a soft selling factor,” said Bernardine van Kessel, director of international business attraction for Team NEO and a Dutch immigrant. “People like it. They don’t expect to come to Cleveland, Ohio, and find a school in their language. It’s part of our quality of life.”
In fact, Greater Cleveland supports an atlas of ethnic language schools, typically volunteer, parent-run programs that preserve the mother tongue. Across the region, parents can steer their children into lessons in Greek, Hungarian, Italian, German, Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian, as well as Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese.
Dutch is simply the newest language in the community curriculum, reflecting the replenishing effect of immigrants.
Mothers were the first to see the imperative. The newly arrived Dutch children needed a language school, they knew, especially if they would be returning to Holland after mom or dad finished the company assignment.
In 2009, five women who had been holding language lessons in each other’s homes founded a formal school. Classes began in the Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, where they are held still. The Dutch government kicked in nearly $30,000 to fund the first three years.
Every Tuesday afternoon, about 35 children from 18 families bound up the church steps and into a school accredited by the Dutch ministry of education. About half the students go into rigorous language classes not unlike Dutch class in Holland.
“The idea is, when they go back to the Netherlands they go into the right grade,” said school co-founder Annette Himes, who has two children at the school.
Her clan falls into what the school board cheerfully calls its “mixed family” category: families that include a Dutch immigrant who married American. They share a close kinship with the expatriate families that, for a variety of reasons, settled in for good.
The Himes children take the more casual Dutch as a Second Language classes, then join their immigrant classmates for the cultural activities, which are numerous and robust.
The school calendar includes Dutch pancake breakfasts, Vincent van Gogh discussions, parties celebrating the birthday of the Queen.
On a recent Sunday, more than 50 “Dutchies” descended on the Cleveland Skating Club near Shaker Square for the winter skate. After lacing up their blades, the children re-created — or re-imagined — De Elfstedentocht, the tradition of skating through 11 Dutch cities connected by frozen canals during an especially frosty winter.
Afterward, everyone sat down to partake of steaming bowls of hearty pea soup, as one does after skating on a canal in the Netherlands.
At times like these, Holland can seem pretty close, the newcomers say, close enough that Cleveland does not feel so foreign.
“For 10 years, I was thinking I’d go back one day,” said Karine van Dijck-Lacquet, a mother of three who teaches at the school.
The years slipped by as Hudson quietly became home.
“I think I’m believing now that I’m staying,” she said and she laughed. “My son is going to college.”
Information from: The Plain Dealer,