At first glance, it seems that the last thing anyone here wants is to be noticed.
The five students around a basement table of the Fels Community Center in South Philadelphia avoid eye contact as their instructor asks for a volunteer. When Chao Chen is finally called on, the silence is broken by four relieved giggles and one nervous swallow.
Chen, a 20-year old 11th grader at South Philadelphia High School, looks down at the film script she has just completed. “When I first came to this country, in New York, the buildings were so tall, I felt like a tiny speck of dust,” she reads in her native Chinese. “It seemed like no one cared about me.”
The giggles subside as Chen continues. Buoyed by the attention of her friends – and forgetting that the class’s English-speaking instructor needs a translation – she races on.
“When I first came to my high school classroom, it was so crowded and noisy. I wanted to join in, but I was scared because I didn’t speak the language. Again, it felt like no one cared.”
By this point, Chen’s words come freely. Reaching the climactic scene, she paints a vivid verbal picture of the loneliness and uncertainty that have marked her transition from Chinese to American life.
The piece ends with Chen in a school hallway, walking with a group of newly made friends. She bends over to tie her shoe. When she looks up, her friends have moved on, not even noticing that she has fallen behind.
Listening to the scripts of the other students in Chen’s filmmaking class, run by the Big Picture Alliance as part of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition’s (SEAMAAC) afterschool programming, it is clear that the immigration experience can be quite painful for many students who do not speak English well.
SEAMAAC and JUNTOS/Casa de los Soles have been leading the Language Advocacy Project, aimed at ensuring that all families have the supports they need to participate fully in the education system. The Notebook is also a partner in this project.
China to New York to Philadelphia
As difficult as her transition has been, Chao Chen feels fortunate to have found SEAMAAC’s afterschool programs and also to have enrolled in one of the District’s model programs for English language learners.
Prior to coming to the U.S., Chen attended three years of high school at the acclaimed Fujian Economics School, an hour away from her family’s home in Changle, a city of 680,000 in Fujian Province.
In December, 2006, Chen, her mother and two siblings left home to join her father in New York City, where he was a bus driver. The family hadn’t seen him in nine years. Though he had a similar job in China, he earned much higher wages in the U.S. that allowed him to put his three children through school.
After a 25-hour flight, they arrived in New York’s Chinatown. Chen quickly realized she’d never learn English there, where everyone speaks Chinese.
With the blessing of their parents and sister, who remained in New York, Chao Chen and younger brother Wei settled in South Philadelphia.
A rare bilingual program
Chen was still struggling with conversational English and trying to fit in when a friend told her about a program at South Philadelphia High School where she could learn with other Chinese students and Chinese-speaking instructors.
South Philly High has had its Chinese Bilingual Program since 1998. The only program of its kind at the high school level in the city, it serves 50 students ages 15-21.
The District considers it a model in both its approach and its results, mostly because it teaches both English and academic content. “One of the major challenges with bilingual programs is finding bilingual teachers who are certified as highly-qualified under No Child Left Behind in their content area,” said Ana Sainz de la Pe