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Longfellow Elementary School celebrates a decade of its Filipino World Language Program

Kindergarten students in the Filipino World Language in Elementary School (WLES) program perform “Sampung Mga Daliri” and Kung Ikaw ay Masaya” at Longfellow Elementary School’s Barrio Fiesta on October 14, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Photo: Andre Canta

Students, teachers, and families of Longfellow Elementary School celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Filipino World Language program on Oct. 14 with a Barrio Fiesta filled with food, dancing, and musical performances.

“It’s a huge milestone, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to celebrate a decade of successful contributions to the Filipino community,” said Elaine Villasper-Dizon, a Longfellow parent and Associate Director of the Filipino Community Center.

The Filipino World Language in Elementary School (WLES) program is among only a handful in the United States that offers an elementary school-level ethnic studies curriculum focused on Filipino culture, language, and history. Located in District 11, Filipino WLES serves the largest population of Filipinos in San Francisco.

“I love Filipino WLES because I learn about my culture and history. I want many other children to have that,” said second-grader and Barrio Fiesta co-host Aya Francisco-Menchavez.

Filipina American and Longfellow alumna Jennifer Raupach and her husband, Paris Raupach, appreciate the program’s well-rounded language curriculum and inclusivity.

“From a non-Filipino perspective, I was really amazed at the sense of community that came out of the program,” Paris Raupach said. “Even the kids who are not Filipino are benefiting from learning about an amazing and beautiful culture.”

Students perform at Longfellow Elementary School’s Barrio Fiesta on October 14, 2022 in San Francisco. Photo: Andre Canta

Longfellow’s celebration came just months after a summer-long campaign to lift San Francisco Unified School District’s enrollment cap on kindergarten and first-grade classes for the 2022-2023 school year. The move by SFUSD’s Educational Placement Center (EPC) proposed an 11-student enrollment capacity and would have resulted in one split class for both grades. The Longfellow community raised awareness on social media, organized a letter-writing campaign and petition that garnered over 600 signatures, and mobilized at two Board of Education meetings in June.

Among the community members who voiced their support for the program during public comment was fifth-grader Alaji Sey. His brother Tijan Sey is a WLES student in the first grade.

“Our program is one of the two Filipino language and history programs in the whole country. An accomplishment like that shouldn’t have a poor decision made like this,” Alaji Sey said. “I’ve loved being in this program because I learned so many different things from different perspectives and cultures. There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and kids should really learn about them and the culture of the people there.”

The campaign was a success. The EPC agreed to increase enrollment capacity to 22 students in kindergarten and first grade.

Alaji and Tijan’s grandmother Laurie Hughes commends the teachers, Filipino activists, and community organizations who defended the program. “It was really lovely to see, and I feel super honored that my family and I are welcomed and able to be a part of it,” she said.

Jeffrey Lapitan, a WLES kindergarten teacher, says the summer campaign was not a one-time mobilization. Rather, Filipino WLES represents decades of community organizing and relationship-building with families.

Filipino language in SFUSD originally began in 1969 at Bessie Carmichael School/Filipino Education Center (FEC) in San Francisco’s South of Market District. In the early 2000s, parents and families expressed a desire for bilingual afterschool programming for newly arrived Filipino youth. Their advocacy led to the formation of FEC-Galing-Bata, which continues to serve students at Bessie Carmichael’s elementary and middle school campuses.

“It’s important for our kids to see us fighting for programs like these because we’re securing their future. It’s important they have a space to grow up healthy, socially, and emotionally and be validated and protected,” said Cristina Alejo, a parent, co-founder of Galing Bata, and educator at Bessie Carmichael Elementary.

Community campaigning for Filipino language programs in San Francisco continued under the leadership of Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales and Pin@y Education Partnerships (PEP). They partnered with Bessie Carmichael and Longfellow teachers to begin developing a Filipino language curriculum. By the 2011-2012 school year, both schools implemented Filipino WLES — previously referred to as the Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) program. Filipino WLES has since grown with the help of leaders, including Sherry Vaughn, Angie Estonina, Leni Juarez, and Mariel Bautista.

Filipino WLES teachers Jhulsany Futol and Jeffrey Lapitan at Longfellow Elementary School. Photo: Andre Canta

Dr. Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University, is inspired by the ongoing advocacy to ensure the longevity of the program and is thankful that her children, Aya and Cy, feel represented in the curriculum.

“My hope is that many families can find culturally and linguistically relevant education for their children — whether they be newcomers, whether they be second or third-generation Filipino Americans — that they can find a home and a community at Longfellow,” she said.

An essential resource for Filipino immigrant youth and U.S.-born children in the Bay Area, Filipino WLES helps students connect with their heritage and roots. But beyond cultural enrichment, Dr. Francisco-Menchavez says the program teaches students another valuable lesson:

“My children learned that part of being Filipino American means they’ve inherited a legacy of resistance, that Filipinos contribute to the cultural makeup of this country, this city, and the Bay Area,” she said.

Jhulsany Futol, who teaches first grade in Filipino WLES, reflects on this legacy of activism. A Longfellow alumnus and longtime educator in SFUSD, Futol has seen firsthand the ways in which Filipinos have mobilized to build a better world for future generations.

“It’s in our hearts to support each other,” Futol said. “That’s our community.”

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