At Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, there are certain classrooms that contain more than just charts with mathematical formulas, art assignments, and the English alphabet. In some classrooms, Tagalog phrases, books written in Tagalog, and pictures of historical Filipino American figures like Larry Itliong, can be found. These are not unusual at the South of Market neighborhood school in San Francisco, as these classrooms provide Filipino culture and language curriculum to students who join the program.
“The mission is to develop competency in a second language in addition to becoming fully proficient in English,” said Tina Lagdamen, principal of Bessie Carmichael Elementary School for the past three years.
The program, called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School), has been around since 2012. In addition to language learning, it also exposes students to the culture and history of the Philippines, such as through cultural dance, food, as well as learning about various historical figures. Filipino Americans are the largest Asian ethnicity population in California, and second-largest in the nation.
Bessie Carmichael, named for the dedicated educator, was the only public school in SoMa prior to World War II that served immigrant and low-income families, according to Tina Alejo, a pre-k teacher at the school who has been involved in the SoMa education community for many years. Before Filipino immigrants, there were Irish factory workers. Back then, it was called Franklin Elementary School. Carmichael was the principal of Franklin, who fought to keep the school open after it was torn down to make way for the 101 freeway.
Prior to the relatively new FLES program, the school had a long history of providing Filipino language and culture to newcomer students. The Filipino Education Center (FEC) was established in 1977 after the Supreme Court Case of Lau v. Nicols, which mandated that students would be instructed in their primary language. In San Francisco, that meant students who spoke Chinese, Spanish, and Filipino, the three largest language groups in the city at the time, would each have education centers dedicated to providing instruction in their heritage languages. FEC became the newcomer school for Filipinos, and later welcomed non-Filipino English learners as well. At the time, FEC was a feeder school to Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, since students needed to eventually transition out of the program and into mainstream, English classes.
Listen to the StoryCorps between Eric Quema and Charity Ramilo on the founding of the Filipino Education Center.
Over the years, the number of Filipino students declined, and the district aimed to shut down FEC in the early 2000s. Due to community outcry and support of the center, Bessie Carmichael and FEC combined into one school. Despite the many iterations of the Filipino language and culture school and program there, the intent exists in some form today, true to what the community and parents have wanted—a way for Filipino, and non-Filipino students, to learn the language, culture and history.
Today, 40 percent of the students at Bessie Carmichael is Filipino. The program is available to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. While a number of the students enrolled in FLES are Filipino, there are also a noticeable presence of non-Filipino students as well. Each day, teachers spend about one hour teaching Tagalog, as well as Filipino culture. Depending on what grade they’re in determines what they learn in the program.
“In kindergarten, they’re learning how to count in Tagalog and they listen to some of the Filipino songs,” explained Lagdamen. “As they go up, in first and second grade, they start learning science and social science, in Tagalog.”
In the four years since the program started, a couple hundred students have gone through the program.
Lagdamen says that she wished there had been a program like this when she was growing up.
“The Filipino culture and language is very unique to Bessie Carmichael,” she said. “I think it’s important to continue for the families. You want to instill that pride in their children, even if they were born here.”
The school, with its long history of community involvement, also includes an afterschool program called Galing Bata, which opened in 2001.
“It complements the language program because the cultural and heritage lessons and experiences give the children opportunities to learn, understand, use and advocate for the Filipino languages and culture,” said Alejo, now a teacher at Bessie Carmichael/FEC and a co-founder of Galing Bata. Galing Bata provides support for students after school, bridging what students are learning and experiencing during the school day. The afterschool teachers are bilingual or multilingual.
For the future of the FLES program, Lagdamen wants to see the curriculum expand to focus more on social justice. This wish goes hand-in-hand with also her desire to elevate how the world sees Filipinos, in attempt to erase existing stereotypes made about Filipinos in the past.
“What I want is for the world to see Filipinos as leaders,” she said. “Here in San Francisco and at Bessie Carmichael, we have Filipino leaders, and I want the world to see us as leaders—whether it is in education or helping the community, but I want to instill that in our students here.”
Listen to two educators, Charm Consolacion and Shari Sarinas of Galing Bata, an afterschool program at Bessie Carmichael/FEC, talk about the importance of language and culture.
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Lauren Lola is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, novelist, and third generation Filipino American. She has had writing published for Kollaboration, Entropy Magazine, Multiracial Media, YOMYOMF, and other publications.
Audio editing by Davin Agatep. Davin Agatep is the Media Fund Manager and the Project Manager for Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies. He currently holds an M.F.A. in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from the Academy of Art University, as well as a B.A. in U.S. History from San Francisco State University.
In partnership with StoryCorps.