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SF Filipino Community Mobilizes to Preserve Unique Elementary School Language Program

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A mother with her arms around her two young daughters.
Nikki Santiago sits with her two daughters outside Longfellow Elementary School in San Francisco on June 23, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nikki Santiago paused on the steps of the San Francisco Unified School District headquarters in early June, fumbling for her notes, before taking the microphone. In front of her, a small crowd of parents and young children held colorful handmade signs that read, “Save Filipino Language Program at Longfellow.”

“This program has really helped my child blossom into the person that she is,” Santiago told the crowd, referring to her older daughter, who had just graduated from the program.

“She used to be very, very reserved and now she’s not just a proud American, but she’s a proud Filipino,” Santiago added. “And that is really important for an immigrant like myself — to be able to represent my Filipino-ness outside my country and be proud and stand tall in a city that eats us up in the United States.”

A few weeks earlier, the families here had learned the district was planning to significantly downsize the Filipino language program at Longfellow Elementary School by combining its kindergarten and first grade classes, reducing the number of spots available by roughly half.

Located in San Francisco's Excelsior neighborhood, the school hosts a large Filipino student body. Its full-day language program is one of just a handful throughout the county offering an elementary school-level ethnic studies curriculum that focuses on Filipino culture and the Tagalog language.

Demonstrators at the rally that day were joined by a representative from their supervisor’s office, along with a school board member and the district superintendent, a show of support underscoring the political sway of their influential community.

Children and adults hold signs at a demonstration to save a Filipino language program.
A group of students and community members demonstrate outside SFUSD headquarters on June 7, 2022, to protest the district's plan to downsize the Filipino language program at Longfellow Elementary School. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Santiago, like a number of other parents at the rally, had been trying to get her youngest daughter into the program this fall, but at that point had yet to hear back from the district.

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A professional chef, Santiago recently moved with her children to Fremont, but says she is willing to make the commute. Because there is no equivalent program in Fremont, she was able to apply for an interdistrict transfer to SFUSD so her daughter could attend Longfellow.

“To be in limbo now for my younger child and not know whether or not she’ll be afforded the same opportunity?” Santiago told the crowd. “As a parent, you just fight for what’s best for your kids, for what’s right.”

Santiago emigrated here from the Philippines when she was 18. She says growing up as a first-generation immigrant without the validation of her culture affected her self-confidence and made it harder for her to succeed.

The language program, she says, offers that validation, while also helping to strengthen the bond between children and their Filipino-born parents.

A teacher wearing a mask speaks with young students outside.
Longfellow Elementary School teacher Jeffrey Lapitan speaks with students at the school on June 23, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“You have to be able to also show the kids that you can be proud as an American, but you can also be proud as a Filipino in the United States. Because a lot of my identity crisis came from the fact that I felt very disconnected to my homeland, growing up in the Philippines and coming to the United States,” she told KQED. “And a lot of my logic still stems from the culture, the tradition, the history that I experienced as a Filipino in the Philippines.”

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It’s one thing for parents to emphasize this at home, says Santiago, but when your kid’s public school honors your heritage, it sends a powerful message that you, too, belong.

And it's not just Filipino students who benefit from the program, says Laurie Hughes, a humanities teacher whose two grandsons attend. “What my grandson has learned in kindergarten, first, second and third grade totally makes sense for ethnic studies and high school. None of his background is Filipino. It doesn't make any difference. They're learning this amazing language and culture and history that is part of San Francisco in the district.”

Like many other school districts, San Francisco Unified is scrambling to figure out how to deal with a significant drop in student enrollment — one fueled in large part by the pandemic — that ultimately translates to less state funding. The district lost roughly 3,600 students, or 7% of its student body, in the 2019-2020 and 2021-22 school years, according to state education data.

Outgoing SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who attended the rally, told demonstrators the district is going through “huge budget issues.”

“One of the pushes from the state has been that we have to align our resources to the number of students,” he said, noting that the district was condensing the Longfellow language program because only about 20 students had signed up for it for next year — roughly half its capacity.

A teacher sits on a desk in his classroom
Longfellow Elementary School Filipino-language program teacher Jeffrey Lapitan poses for a portrait at the school on June 23, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

District officials note that under-enrollment is not unique to this program — there were almost 1,700 unfilled elementary school language pathway spaces in the district in 2021-22. The district says it is trying to maintain existing pathway programs by combining classes, with the option of expanding them in the future if and when more students apply.

But advocates of the Longfellow program argue it has been consistently at capacity for much of its 10-year existence — up until the pandemic hit — and soon will be so again. They've recently reached out to families to encourage more students to enroll, and hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the district to lift the new enrollment cap.

“Filipinos have contributed to this community for years and decades. And it's very personal to me,” said Santiago, who is helping lead the organizing effort. “It's really, really backwards of the district to do it, kind of like hush-hush. They didn't even give a warning.”

Teachers in the program mobilized first, alerting parents. Jeffrey Lapitan, who teaches kindergarten in the program, says parents activated quickly, using the remote networks they had formed during the pandemic.

“They made it a real big point for them to organize themselves through email, through texting. They have their own little text thread group for organizing playdates and things like that,” he said.

A woman stands in front of an elementary school.
Nikki Santiago poses for a portrait outside Longfellow Elementary School in San Francisco on June 23, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many of those teachers and students volunteered to make the buttons everyone wore to the rally, Lapitan says. “So really, just using those personal connections.”

Parents also contacted Pin@y Educational Partnerships, part of a larger network of Filipino ethnic studies classes at local colleges and several high schools that was founded by San Francisco State students. And they notified the Filipino Community Center, created out of a Filipino workers rights’ movement in 2005, which had the line to Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who represents the Excelsior.

Santiago says she was a community organizer in college but hadn’t taken to the streets in protest since having children. Now she was coming up with slogans for the signs and joining committees in planning the rally and the social media push.

That organizing instinct, she says, is deeply rooted in a long history of Filipino activism in San Francisco and California. It’s a history she can recite easily, from the trailblazing Filipino organizers who helped lead the fight for farmworkers rights in the 1960s, to the movement, the next decade, to save the International Hotel, a low-income apartment building in the heart of San Francisco’s Manilatown.

“We're scrappers. We're used to being in front of the fight,” she said. “So to say that this fight is over, I think that's neglecting the history of how Filipinos are just relentless.”

In late June, Santiago finally learned her daughter had been accepted at Longfellow. But some other families she knows were not as fortunate.

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“This is separating our communities,” she said. “And we are going to continue speaking up on this issue until it's righted.”

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