Bessie Carmichael Elementary School has a Filipino language program that some parents sought to expand to a dual immersion program. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Filipino immersion proposal meets with resistance from school district

Bessie Carmichael parents say current program failing to teach language proficiency

While a majority of parents at a South of Market elementary school supported a Filipino language immersion program, San Francisco Unified School District staff recommended against it on Monday.

In a feasibility study update before a Board of Education committee, district staff instead recommend focusing on bolstering the current foreign language in elementary school (FLES) program at Bessie Carmichael School PreK-8 and Filipino Education Center School, which is open to all students. A small survey of parents in November 2019 found that 55 percent preferred a dual immersion program while 20 percent sought to keep the current model

To be considered a dual language immersion (DLI) program, at least half of the daily instruction would need to be in Filipino, while students would ideally break down to a third native proficiency, a third who speak only English, and a third who are billingual. Teachers in the program would be required to have a bilingual, cross-cultural, language and academic development (BCLAD) certification.

Only two schools in the country, SFSUD’s Bessie Carmichael and Longfellow Elementary School in the Outer Mission, have a FLES program for the Filipino language. Students in the program get at least 30 minutes of language and cultural enrichment three to five days a week.

Bessie Carmichael, which is in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, changed its biliteracy program to a foreign language in elementary school (FLES) in 2016. But leadership changes, differing visions and lack of resources has meant the program has not yet been fully implemented and has been more focused on culture, SFUSD said.

In February 2019, 109 students were enrolled in the FLES program.

Members of Bessie’s English Language Advisory Committee in 2017 recommended changing to a dual language program, a recommendation that was later backed by a January 2019 survey that found 77 percent of Bessie parents wanted to continue exploring the proposal. A feasibility study was conducted in November 2019.

The change in direction from a dual immersion program came as a disappointment to a few parents of students in Bessie Carmichael’s FLES program who spoke during public comment Monday. In engaging parents, SFUSD found that several Filipino community members want the new program and feel that the district has underserved them.

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” said Ruby Turalba. “Our FLES program has not led to language acquisition or language proficiency. Language for us is about our culture, it’s about our identity, it’s about connecting to our family and when that’s lost, we also disrupt those connections and relationships.”

But for others in the school community, strengthening the FLES program and keeping it open to all was important to prevent self-segregation among students that some teachers observed.

In 2019, about 30 percent of students enrolled at Bessie were Filipino, 27 percent were Latino, 13 percent were Black and nine percent were Asian.

“I think a big step in healing our community is focusing on the ethnic studies part that comes from Filipino culture as well,” said Valerie Fernandez, a fifth-grade FLES teacher. “That’s how we build solidarity within our schools. It is showing our students of color that we do have a shared identity.”

Recommendations to improve the FLES program include increasing instruction time from 90 minutes to 120 minutes per week, ensuring that lessons are taught in Filipino 90 percent of the time, and outlining a K-12 trajectory.

SFUSD recently hired a teacher on special assignment who has been creating the Filipino curriculum currently used. School Board member Alison Collins asked for a report on it at the end of the year to share with schools districtwide. She acknowledged that some parents called for a dual immersion program because the current structure wasn’t actually teaching much language.

“If we had a FLES program but kids weren’t learning that’s…bad,” Collins said. “At the end of the year, I would love to see an update.”

Should SFUSD launch a dual language immersion program for the school, it would also cost an estimated $538,000 for the first year and $2.5 million for the first five years. The district would need to hire consultants, two Filipino teachers on special assignment to coordinate efforts and create lessons in Filipino for language arts, math and science.

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