School Honors at 90

The nation's first Chinese immersion school honors a pioneer in education

In keeping with the pioneering spirit of the Chinese who came to mine the Gold Mountain, Alice Fong Yu broke barriers 44 years ago to become the first Chinese American teacher in San Francisco. In honor of her role in Asian American history, the nation’s first Chinese immersion school has been dedicated to and named after Yu.

“We’re very proud of her and quite honored that she would have this kind of tribute paid to her,” said Alon Yu, her oldest son, who spoke on behalf of the family and his 90-year-old mother. “More importantly we feel that it acknowledges the contributions and achievements Chinese Americans have made to the field of education over the last 70 years.”

Alice Fong Yu, a third-generation Chinese American, was born March 2, 1905 in the small gold mining town of Washington, Calif., along the banks of the Yuba River.

The second of 11 children, she attended elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse that still stands today.

Alice Fong Yu’s inspiration to pursue a career in education came from her father, said Alon Yu.

“Her father was very progressive, even though he was from China and first-generation Chinese American,” he said. “He encouraged all of his children to go to college and pursue a career.”

When she applied to San Francisco State University, then known as San Francisco Normal Teachers’ College, in 1922, thenpresident Frederick Burke discouraged her from attending. He told her that even if she earned a degree, discrimination would prevent her from getting a job.

But she persisted, telling the college head that she intended to go to China to teach English. He relented and let her in.

Upon graduation, Alice Yu scrapped plans to go to Hawaii for a teaching job when the principal at Commodore Stockton Elementary School in San Francisco’s Chinatown persuaded the school board to hire her because of her value as a bilingual teacher for the predominately Chinese-speaking student body. Yu spent 34 years teaching three generations of Commodore Stockton students.

After obtaining a special-education credential in speech therapy, she spent the last 10 years of her career traveling to various schools in the city to help students with speech disabilities. She retired from teaching in 1970.

Also active in the community, Alice Fong Yu helped found the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, and founded the Square and Circle Club, the oldest Chinese women’s community service organization in San Francisco, in 1924.

“Alice Fong Yu is an important individual in Chinese American history,” said Leland Yee, a San Francisco school board member.

“Her history, her trials, her tribulations are a sad reminder of the discrimination that all Chinese faced,” said Yee, who co-authored the resolution to name the immersion school after Yu. “But I think she is also an inspiration to us because she conquered adversity and became a successful teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District.”

The Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, formerly the Chinese Immersion Alternative School, is the first immersion school in Chinese. Immersion programs, which include Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, have been in place in some of the city’s schools for about 10 years.

In the program, children are immersed in a second language, with teachers speaking and teaching in the second language. The younger the student, the less English the teachers speak.

SFUSD is the first school district in the United States to implement the immersion model. The results have been positive, said Mabel Teng, a San Francisco supervisor who has enrolled her children in a Chinese immersion program for the last six years.

“The first Chinese immersion class is now in the tenth grade, and all of the students are testing in the upper percentage on the CTBS the state’s standardized test for skills,” Teng said.

Yee said he has enrolled his children in immersion programs since their inception because he and his wife feel it is important for children to grow up knowing two languages. Renaming the alternative school after Yu sends a strong historical message to school children, he added.

“I think her story is an important one for all of our students: that discrimination is something that their parents and grandparents have all gone through,” Yee said. “Discrimination is still in San Francisco now, but we should not allow it to overcome us and immobilize us–rather, we should treat it as a challenge. I think that story is important for our youngsters, and what better way to help kids remember it than by naming a school after Alice Fong Yu?”

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