When new immigrants with young children arrive in San Francisco, they find schools that bear little resemblance to ones in other countries. Here, parents have a say in how their children are educated — but they also must act as advocates for their kids in a diverse school district governed by multiple tiers of administrators and committees.
Yue Tan came to San Francisco from China three years ago. At first, she found it daunting to get involved at Gordon J. Lau Elementary, where her daughter attends fifth grade.
“Here, parents are allowed to express their opinion,” said Tan, speaking through a translator. “America is a free country. Parent involvement in the school is very important.”
Tan soon signed up for parent training from the advocacy group Parents for Public Schools, gaining the confidence to begin joining school committees.
“It’s targeted to help parents get involved with their schools,” Carol Lei, the program director, said at a graduation Monday for the most recent class of parents. “They learn that they have a voice with the school board. If you’re coming from a country where the teachers are gods, you would never question them.”
Parents for Public Schools has held six-week courses in English and Spanish for about six years, Lei said. The organization helps parents of all backgrounds navigate the district’s complicated student assignment system.
Cindy Choy, who runs the Chinese-language trainings, said she seeks to help parents who don’t speak English avoid some of the barriers that she encountered when she arrived from China in 2001.
“I didn’t know anything,” she said. “It’s much better now. I have channels to find help.”
Some parents don’t know they have the right to ask for a translator, Choy said. They also must overcome cultural reticence to speak up.
“I have to help them build self-confidence,” she said.
Choy said she was proud when a group of parents organized to oust a teacher who wasn’t attending work.
“They didn’t think such an irresponsible teacher should be allowed to stay,” she said. “I taught parents to approach the school and let them know when there was a problem.”
Tan said the training had taught her how important it was to get involved.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “I see so many different ethnic groups. But it’s important to come together to achieve our goal.”