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We Need to Preserve, Strengthen, and Sustain Filipino Language Studies

Photo: Angelica Cabande

Eighth-grade student Maya Masagca at Bessie Camichael PK-8 School/Filipino Education Center recalls her experiences learning Filipino language, history, and culture at her elementary school:

Filipino foods were part of my fondest memories as a student in the Filipino language program. During our 5th-grade camping trip, we had a kamayan dinner where tons of food was laid out on banana leaves, and everyone ate the food with their hands. At school, we would have potlucks on birthdays, Flores De Mayo, graduation, and Christmas! We always ate family-style with traditional foods like lechon, lumpia, and pancit. Food and celebrations helped our classroom community form stronger bonds with each other and our culture.

The Filipino language program also helped my newcomer classmates from the Philippines feel welcome and safe. Many of my friends are immigrants and not strong in English. I saw how important this program was for them, especially when my teachers would explain math or instructions in Tagalog.

For a history research project, I discovered that Bruno Mars, Saweetie, and H.E.R. were Filipino. I was surprised because it was the first time I’d seen someone of the same ethnicity as me that was famous.

My middle school Filipino elective teacher says, “the Filipino language program specifically offers Filipino-American students an opportunity to see someone who comes from the same background as them as a teacher. I think that having a class like this offers students of all backgrounds an opportunity to learn more about themselves and how they connect culturally and linguistically to other cultures.”

The Filipino language program helped me become closer to my immigrant parents and my culture. The program impacted me so much that I wanted to keep learning about my culture when I went to middle school.

While the K-5 Filipino language program at Bessie Carmichael/FEC has helped hundreds of students develop a love for themselves, their culture, and their community, the program has faced numerous challenges, especially during fiscal crises. Due to budget constraints and declining enrollment, the school recently announced consolidating two Filipino language classes in the next academic year.

Photo: Angelica Cabande

As a parent, I have learned about and witnessed multiple top-down school district decisions to cut back Filipino language studies without involving community voice—this has been an ongoing struggle since the 1970’s. Combining the 4th and 5th grade Filipino language classes in the next school year contradicts the district’s mission to ensure “meaningful consultation with the parents/guardians, students, and staff…impacted by those decisions.”

The decision backs down from the SFUSD’s commitment to strengthen the Filipino language program — a concession made after the 2019 Feasibility Study found the district lacks the capacity to offer a Filipino Dual Language Immersion Program, which parents advocated for. Weakening the program also fails the district’s pledge of Cultural Competence and Multilingualism, outlined in their Vision 2025 statement and the state’s Global California 2030 Initiative, which aims for students to be proficient in two or more languages.

Filipinos make up a third of the school’s student population. Filipinos are the third largest ethnic group in San Francisco, with limited English proficiency. San Francisco certified Tagalog as the third official language to be used in communicating essential city services. Over the years, the Filipino language program has helped Filipino newcomers adjust to life in a new country, feel more connected to their culture, and gain extra support as they develop English proficiency. The current Filipino program grew out of the Filipino Education Center (FEC), one of SFUSD’s first newcomer schools, which began in response to Lau vs. Nichols — asserting a child’s right to learn in their primary language. FEC’s inception created equitable language access for Filipino newcomers, which continues today. Consolidating two grade levels into one classroom means that students would get less individualized support while working hard to adapt to a new setting and limit available seats for students who immigrate during the school year.

The program teaches Filipino American (FA) students about their roots. Positive identity development is particularly important for our FA students who have higher rates of suicidality, as indicated in the district’s 2017 Middle School Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In fact, students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to learn the Filipino language, history, and culture, especially at our school site in SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District. Last September, the SF Board of Supervisors (BOS) passed a resolution adopting the Filipino Cultural Heritage District’s Cultural, History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategy Report, which prioritizes Filipino arts education and programs teaching Filipino languages, history, and culture. A strong Filipino language program clearly aligns with the BOS resolution.

Finally, the program also benefits our newcomer parents, who can communicate with teachers in their shared language. The Filipino teachers and families are so proud to have such a unique and special program, one of two in the district and the nation. The program supports the students’ and adults’ sense of belonging in the school community — it’s like an extension of our homes and families. To make cuts and changes to the program is an assault on all the students and adults who have fought hard to keep it going. Closing a Filipino language classroom takes away another opportunity from our students, many of whom are socio-economically disadvantaged, English language learners, and live in the SOMA.

SFUSD needs to know that students, families, and community members oppose combining the 4th/5th grade Filipino language classes in the 2023-2024 school year! We want to preserve, strengthen, and sustain Filipino language studies!

Maya Masagca was part of the Filipino language program at Bessie Carmichael/FEC from kindergarten to 5th grade. She is now in 8th grade.

Ruby N. Turalba is a parent of a middle school student at Bessie Carmichael/FEC. Her child enrolled in the Filipino language program in the 3rd grade.

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