Erin Richburg, a K-2 writing teacher at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), recalls one professional development meeting that left a lasting impression on her and her colleagues.
They were covering the subject of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction—but the specialist was intentionally only speaking in German. The teachers had no idea what was going on.
This, of course, is what many FACTS students and their families experience every day.
“Remembering that perspective is important,” Richburg said.
FACTS, located in Chinatown, emphasizes cultural awareness and linguistic diversity both in its curriculum and in its daily operations. Since opening in 2005, the school has developed a reputation among immigrant families as a welcoming place not only for students, but also for their families and the surrounding community.
With a highly diverse population of students—Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Lao, Puerto Rican, and Mexican—the school takes pains to ensure that language barriers won’t prevent parents from supporting their children’s education.
School materials are sent home in four different languages, which “parents love,” said teacher Aurelia Bonitatis. Teachers also have parent call logs to ensure that families are updated on their student’s progress. Where language barriers arise, phone calls are translated by an outside contractor.
School can be intimidating to parents who grew up in a different culture or never had any formal education in their home country. FACTS personnel take steps to ensure that parents who feel culturally excluded at most American institutions feel welcome there. Some non-Chinese-speaking teachers have taken workshops in Mandarin so that they can greet parents.
“It’s a huge difference when you see teachers in your school that look like you, that you feel like you can connect with,” said Bonitatis, a native speaker of Fujianese who worked in Chinatown restaurants when she was young.
Nearly a third of students at FACTS are English language learners (ELLs) — most of them Asian. There is a particularly high concentration of ELLs in the lower grades, said Bonitatis, who estimated that nearly two-thirds of the students in her first kindergarten class required some sort of ESL support. Of these, she recalled, seven spoke no English at all. Bonitatis’ knowledge of Chinese enabled her to support these students by teaching whole-group lessons to everyone and then quickly reviewing the lesson in Chinese with the Chinese-dominant students.
“My concern in the beginning was that they wouldn’t acquire English because they’d be dependent on Chinese,” she said. “But I don’t think it really hurt them at all.”
ESL instruction takes both pull-out and push-in forms, and features close collaboration between specialists and regular classroom teachers.
ESL also takes place within a greater context of valuing all languages. Every student takes Mandarin classes, and the school hopes that children who begin these classes in kindergarten will reach “intermediate levels of proficiency by the time they exit 8th grade,” according to its annual report.
Bonitatis often conducts her morning circle time in Chinese but encourages all students to speak their native language. “I think the kids get the idea that… knowing an extra language is a plus—no matter what it is,” she said.
The school educates parents about community nonprofits and lawyers who will work pro bono to help with their financial or legal concerns. For the coming school year, it plans to hire a full-time social worker.
The relationship that FACTS has built with the outside community is purposefully a reciprocal one. Asian Americans United has offices in the building, and the school is used on weekends for adult Mandarin classes and Beijing opera. Grandparents and senior citizens volunteer in the school, and local folk artists periodically do teaching residencies with the students.
Richburg just finished her first year of teaching at FACTS, after six years in District schools. “The open-door feeling between the community and the school,” she said, “is something that is different and favorable.”