For Chinese Parents, Local Control is ‘Lost in Translation’

For Chinese Parents, Local Control is ‘Lost in Translation’

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Photo credit: Derek Zhang, Sing Tao Daily
SAN FRANCISCO -- Warren Wong’s son attends public school in San Francisco. A designated English Learner, Wong put him in an afterschool program to help accelerate his language skills, and it seemed to be working until the lights went out.

Wong says it’s been two months and the school “still hasn’t replaced the bulb” in the classroom.

His was one of a slue of concerns raised by parents at a Chinese-language listening session held at the Chinatown offices of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), a community advocacy group.

The meeting of a dozen parents and Chinese-language media coincided with hearings by the State Board of Education Thursday in Sacramento over a new school finance system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula. Part of the law, which directs increased funds to high need students, requires districts to more effectively engage parents and communities when making decisions on how to spend the new monies.

For the city’s Chinese-speaking parents, that process has to begin with language.

“When I first came to this city, there was no translator [at my son’s school],” says mother of two Angela Zhou. “I was at a loss,” she says, recalling how her older son, now 14, was placed in an English-only class despite the fact that the district recommended that he be placed in a bi-lingual Chinese and English program.

“He always cried when he got home because he couldn’t understand anything that was said in class,” Zhou says. When she approached the principal she was told simply that the bilingual class was full. “This was not fair to my son,” she stressed.

Similar complaints were heard throughout the two-and-a-half hour meeting. Sunny Xiao, a single mother, left her home and a good paying job in China in 2004. She came to San Francisco, she said, because schools in China “turn kids into robots.” She wanted something better for her son.

But when she enrolled her son in school she found that while he was placed in a Chinese bi-lingual program, the language was Cantonese. Xiao and her son speak Mandarin. Things got so bad that at one point Xiao considered “sending him back to China.”

In the 2012-13 school year, nearly a quarter of all students in SFUSD were classified as English learners, the majority of them Spanish-speaking. Nearly ten percent were classified as Cantonese speakers.

Thanks to a 1974 Supreme Court ruling, Lau v. Nichols, schools in San Francisco and across the country are required to provide language services to non-English speaking students to ensure they receive equal access to education under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. CAA first brought the suit on behalf of Chinese students in San Francisco.

Part of SFUSD’s current Lau Plan ensures access for EL students to “effective learning pathways and specialized programs and services, staffing and professional development, and parent outreach and involvement.”

On that last point parents in the room were in agreement that more work still needs to be done.

Betty Cao came to the United States from China at the age of six. A community advocate with CAA, she works closely with the group’s Parent Advocacy program, many of whose members were present at Thursday’s meeting. Begun in 2004, the program was launched out of a sense among Chinese parents of “not being welcome or engaged” by the district.

Today the program offers a multi-tier development course to train parents on how to better engage with schools and the district to ensure their needs and the needs of their children are met. “The main goal of this program is to develop leaders among limited-English speaking Chinese parents” who can then take those skills “to the schools, the district and the community.”

Un Un Che has been with the program for six years now and was easily the most outspoken at the event. A mother of three, she says language services for Chinese parents have improved over the years, though they still lag in middle and high school.

“Schools assume that because students at those levels can already speak English, they don’t need the extra services,” she told the group. “But that doesn’t apply to the parents,” many of whom continue to struggle with English.

Che said she approached the principal when she noticed her oldest son, a high school student, was coming home after school and “just playing games all night.” Che adds that no translator was provided during the meeting.

Zhou offered a similar account, saying she often has to wait two weeks for a translator to be made available, and that often it’s a different person each time, meaning she has to “explain her situation again and again,” eating up much of her 50 minute time slot with school administration.

Thursday’s gathering was organized by New America Media as part of a series of in-language parent engagement sessions around the state in conjunction with The California Endowment’s School Success Express. It was the only Chinese-language session and was hosted by Chinese-language news broadcaster KTSF’s Kwokshu Leung and covered by seven Chinese language media outlets.

Asked by Leung what they would like to see done better by the schools, parents agreed that enhancing communication was key, including faster response times to parent concerns, as well as notifying parents around issues linked to behavior, school climate and academics. One parent stressed the need to have counselors on staff fluent in the dominant languages spoken on campus.

The State Board of Education has until January to settle on final language for the new finance formula. Advocates are concerned the law could prioritize local flexibility at the district level at the expense of accountability that would ensure the funds go where they are intended. Parents are a key component in that.

“If there is something I can do for my kids, I will do it,” says Che, who adds, “If I don’t speak up, they won’t know I exist.”