Tenderloin Community School Won't Have Vietnamese Bilingual-Ed

A community effort to implement a Vietnamese bilingual-education program at the new Tenderloin Community School has fizzled, leaving Vietnamese American parents and community leaders outraged.

A recent Board of Education decision granted the Tenderloin school a period of three years during which “no major programmatic changes to the school will be made,” essentially meaning that the school won’t see a Vietnamese bilingual program anytime soon.

The resolution, sponsored by board commissioners Jill Wynns, Frank Chong and Mary T. Hernandez, recognizes that the school is still in its developmental stages.

“It’s a brand new school, and we want to give it some stability,” Chong said.

But for Kim Oanh Nguyen, executive director for the Vietnamese Community Center in the Tenderloin, the decision to delay action would only shortchange the children.

“This is a crucial time to teach kids and not wait three years–by then it’s too late,” she said.

Nguyen says that the board is not opposed to a bilingual program, just one that is Vietnamese. Currently there is a Chinese bilingual program at the school, she says.

“Isn’t it obvious there is an insensitivity toward the Vietnamese, to ignore the Vietnamese children and parents?” she said.

According to Nguyen, the center gathered over 300 signatures from Vietnamese parents who want the program.

“We’re glad they’re willing to look into a study and get funding, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get it, so we have to work closely with (them),” she said.

The board also issued a second resolution urging the district to examine the prospect of implementing a Vietnamese bilingual-education program and other Southeast Asian language programs for the district. Currently, San Francisco doesn’t have any.

The elementary school, less than a year old, sits in the heart of the Tenderloin neighborhood, where there are some 1,200 school-age children.

Despite the concentration of Vietnamese children in the Tenderloin, only a handful of Vietnamese children attend the school. According to district statistics, 15 percent of the student body make up “other non-whites” which would include Vietnamese and Southeast Asian children.

Principal Jane Huey, who hand-counted the students last year, found that of the school’s 143 students, 7 percent were Vietnamese, 29 percent were Chinese, 26 percent Latino, 10 percent black, 8 percent Filipino and 10 percent were other non-white.

“What does that say? Our children don’t go to the school–they’re being bused to other schools. That’s upsetting,” said Yvonne Bui, who is a teacher at John Muir elementary.

According to School Board Commissioner Eddie Chin, overcrowded schools in Chinatown is in part the reason for the high number of Chinese students in the Tenderloin school. He said that many of the children are being bused out of the neighborhood, attending schools across town, while children in Chinatown are transferred to the Tenderloin school.

Supervisor Leland Yee, who sponsored a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors in April urging the district to implement a Vietnamese bilingual program at the Tenderloin school, called the decision “anti-Vietnamese.”

“What they’re doing is a round about way to say, ‘We don’t want a Vietnamese bilingual program,'” he said.

Yee says the Tenderloin is where the Vietnamese population of San Francisco is most concentrated and where kids should have access to bilingual education.

“The school is part of the Tenderloin community. The Vietnamese are part of the Tenderloin community,” he said.

The Tenderloin Community School–the first and only elementary school in the neighborhood–has been in the making for the last 10 years. The school will eventually have a family community center, which will include a dental clinic, counseling center, an adult education center and a community garden.

The school hasn’t yet reached it’s capacity, currently holding fewer than 150 students from kindergarten through the third grade. The district has agreed to phase in the school so that within the next four years, it can hold students through the fifth grade.

And for the parents and community members who have been working on the school for the last decade, they’re hesitant in making changes. Midge Wilson, executive director of the Bay Area Women and Children’s Center, a group that has led the efforts to build the school, supported the resolution to hold off changes for the school. She says waiting for the school to phase in would allow for “equal access” of the diverse population in the Tenderloin.

“You wouldn’t find a more diverse breakdown in the country,” she said. “Since (the school) is so diverse, it’s too soon to decide what it needs.”

Maria Torre, co-chair of the PTA and mother of children in kindergarten and first grade, says that she’d like to see the school hold all its students before implementing any programs. “If the school reaches its full capacity and they still want a Vietnamese bilingual program, then I’m all for it.”

For now, she agrees that it’s best to wait. “Any changes should be thought out and not just come from one group,” she said.

But for Vietnamese parents, it make sense to create the only Vietnamese bilingual program in the district in a neighborhood where Vietnamese children are growing up.

“We just want one small part of their school–one small program, one Vietnamese bilingual class,” Bui said.

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