Alice Fong Yu Alternative School confronts language barrier 

click to enlarge Lost in translation: A plan to increase the number of native Chinese speakers at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School was objected to by parents. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SPECIAL TO THE SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/Special to The SF Examiner
  • Lost in translation: A plan to increase the number of native Chinese speakers at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School was objected to by parents.

Charlotte Moore’s three children have thrived in the Chinese-immersion program at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School in the Inner Sunset.

“It’s pretty impressive to see it happen,” said Moore, whose Caucasian children can now converse fluently in Cantonese.

But Moore was worried when she learned the San Francisco Unified School District planned to increase the number of native Chinese speakers at the school to as much as two-thirds of the student body, decreasing the proportion of non-Chinese speakers.

“It came as a shock,” Moore said. “The program seems to be running smoothly. This is a great place for non-Chinese speakers to come and learn Chinese.”

The district backed away from the plan after Alice Fong Yu’s Parents Association packed recent Board of Education meetings with dozens of concerned members. But questions remain about the future of one of San Francisco’s most successful — and desirable — public schools.

Lillian Fong, chairwoman of Alice Fong Yu’s school site council and the mother of a sixth-grader and a graduate, explained that parents were worried the school would wind up focusing on English as a second language, rather than on Chinese immersion. Parents also feared non-Chinese children would have a harder time enrolling.

“You’re going to impact the school’s diversity, because everyone else will be competing for that one-third,” Fong said.

Christina Wong, special assistant to the superintendent,  said the district has tabled plans to move Alice Fong Yu to “dual immersion,” the system used at the handful of other district elementary schools that offer special language programs. Those schools require a majority of students to be proficient in the foreign language, with those who are not bilingual learning English as a second language in addition to taking math, science and other classes in Spanish or Chinese.

Wong noted that nearly a quarter of Alice Fong Yu’s student body is already made up of English learners, even though that school’s one-way immersion curriculum was not designed for students who are just learning English.

“They’re already acting as a dual-immersion program,” Wong said.

Wong said the district would “take a step back” and discuss the ideal ratio of English speakers to English learners with the school community. But in the meantime, the district already has enrolled more English learners at the school this year than in previous years. And that has some parents worried.

Raelynn Hickey said her son Johnny, a kindergartner, felt left behind by his many native-Cantonese-speaking classmates who seem to grasp lessons much faster than he can.

“You’re messing with kids’ confidence and their lives,” she said as she picked her son up after school in Alice Fong Yu’s bustling courtyard. “I’m questioning it, going forward.”

Alice Fong Yu Alternative School

Neighborhood: Inner Subset

Grades: K-8

Opened: 1995

Students: 552 (in 2010)

Academic Performance Index in 2011: 955 out of a possible 1,000 points (highest in SFUSD)

Claim to fame: First Chinese-immersion public school in the country

Sources: SFUSD,state Department of Education

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