Education Forum: “Here We Are, Hear Our Voices”
By Jackie Bong-Wright
“I migrated to the U.S. when I was six and didn’t speak a word of English,” said Ginny Gong, keynote speaker at the first Asian Pacific American (APA) Education Forum on November 16. She was now speaking flawlessly and without notes to a wide range of participants including community organizations, Fairfax County students, elected legislative members and local school board officials.
Gong said that English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes (which did not exist in her day) were now widely available, part of Montgomery County’s commitment to diversity. But, she said, the APA community still had its problems. She mentioned the bullying and harassment Asians endured and the continuing concern with “face” – fear of disgracing oneself and one’s family.
Gong, a former Human Resources Administrator with the Montgomery County Public Schools, said APA parents had to be empowered. They should be actively involved in PTAs (Parent Teachers Associations) and get elected to shool boards and county councils. She said acculturation and mainstreaming were critical for students to succeed.
Gong was introduced by Ting-Yi Oei, the Forum’s organizer and the president of CAPAVA, the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans. Entitled “Here We are, Hear Our Voices,” the meeting was held on a rainy evening at Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Oei said that CAPAVA, the event’s sponsor, wanted to heighten awareness of APA concerns about education and to encourage APAs to become more involved in their schools.
Oei raised a number of education issues, including “under-identified and under-served Asian students who need Special Education services and additional ESL support.” He continued, “APAs have a certain invisibility under the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) effort. The figures used to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) do not differentiate Asian students, even though 17% of the student population in Fairfax County is APA.” Mr. Oei went on to explain that, because APAs are not 5% of the population in Virginia, no school division in the state reports figures for Asians in AYP. He also said school curricula needed to be improved and revised and that APA teachers as well as school staff had to be recruited, promoted and retained. He concluded that the APA community had to increase their participation in school programs and activities and find ways to make their voices heard.
Panelists comprising students, parents, teachers, counselors and school administrators discussed their concerns. Jackie Bong-Wright was the Moderator.
Kathleen Leos, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, explained how the “No Child Left Behind”program affected non-English speakers. She called NCLB an important civil rights advance that is requiring the system to change to meet students’ needs and that makes state achievement standards applicable to all.
“First of all, non-English-speaking students can’t be pulled from classrooms during core instructional time. Secondly, parents must be involved in choosing their children’s courses and language programs. For this, parents must receive notifications in a language they understand, and they have a right to a translator at parent-teacher conferences. Third, every state must look at academic achievement for non-English- speaking students as a sub-group. Fourth, standardized tests are to be administered in a student’s native language for the first three years, with an option to continue for additional years. Results of students’ assessments are reported to parents, but do not count towards overall scores for the first three years.”
A parent noted that some students did very well in other subjects but had difficulty with language and could not graduate. She raised the issue of high school “A” level ESOL students who needed two classes to succeed in order to graduate and go on to college. Leos replied that this was a state, not a federal, policy, so the schools had to change it at the state level.
South Lakes High School student Beatriz Hernandez and parent liaison Anna Kim spoke to whether high schools were meeting student needs. Ms. Hernadez thought ESL programs and counselors were doing a good job overall, and said she had not encountered any divisions or prejudices among ethnic groups. Ms. Kim said that some students who needed to continue beyond age 18 to acquire the language and earn a diploma were ashamed to be in a class with younger students. They either left school or moved to GED programs.
Regarding misperceptions of background, Joe Tijerina, Minority Community Outreach Coordinator for the National Education Association, said that he was not recognized as Mexican American. He came from a border area in Texas, had worked with various communities, and learned to appreciate other people and cultures. He cautioned that one should not lose his or her own culture, and should pick up on commonalities, not differences.
Asheesh Misra, a social studies teacher at Marshall High School, believed his ethnicity was important to his students, especially those of APA and Middle Eastern descent. They valued the fact that they had an APA teacher as a role model, and shared their struggles and their pride more with someone to whom they could relate. This gave them a high degree of confidence in the school system. Vicky Phung, an Annandale High School student, echoed Mr. Misra, saying she felt more comfortable with an APA teacher or counselor. Ms. Hernandez agreed that an APA teacher could connect with parents more easily.
Asked whether there was any discrimination against APAs, Anna Kim told of a parent who was treated with suspicion by a teacher because she entered through the back door.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a teacher himself, believed that APAs suffered from the perception that, since APAs did well as a group, they didn’t need help. He said APA teachers were only 2.5% of teachers in Fairfax County overall, with APA administrators amounting to an even smaller number – less than half of 1%. He recommended that public school system set a benchmark for hiring APAs as they have for other minorities.
The Assistant Superintendent in the Department of Human Resources concurred, citing a need to hire not only APA teachers but also custodial and other support personel.
Mr. Bich also said that if more APA teachers were involved in setting the curriculum, accounts of the Vietnam War would not contain certain distortions. Kurt Waters, Social Studies Chairman at Centreville High School, responded that the world history curriculum had been revised extensively 20 years ago. It moved from a Eurocentric focus to include Asian, African, and Latin American history, but it was more difficult to train teachers to teach the curriculum effectively.
Concerning parents’ engagement in schools, Vicky Phung revealed that parents didn’t see the need to come to school as long as their children brought home good grades. Ms. Kim added that many parents, lacking English-language skills, felt embarrassed to participate in school actvities. She wanted PTAs to welcome APA parents. Mr. Misra told of a group of 50 parents who empowered themselves by getting the county to invest in learning more about the South Asian region and culture.
Ginny Gong added that, in Montgomery County, the Asian parent network funded half of a parent outreach person to work with the school and community. Mr. North supported the idea of hiring more APA parent liaisons, but he said that part of the problem was that only 1.8 percent of teacher college graduates were APAs. There was a need for APA parents to encourage their children to become teachers.
Eric Jensen, CAPAVA’s chair, summed up with a dilemma. “How to mainstream APA families while helping them preserve their heritage?” He asked that the APA community take steps to work with CAPAVA and come up with concrete solutions to present to local and state governments. “CAPAVA is going to conduct more education forums around the state, begin a dialogue between Maryland and Virginia, and encourage policy-makers to hear APA issues.”