Filipino SF community rallies together to preserve unique elementary school language curriculum


It’s one thing for parents to emphasize this at home, Santiago says, but when your child’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 are enrolled. “What my grandson learned in kindergarten, first, second and third grade makes perfect sense for ethnic studies and high school. None of her background is Filipino. It makes no difference. They learn this amazing language, culture and history that is part of San Francisco in the neighborhood.

Like many other school districts, San Francisco Unified is struggling to figure out how to deal with a significant drop in student enrollment — fueled in large part by the pandemic — that ultimately translates into lower state funding. The district lost about 3,600 students, or 7% of its student body, in the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years, according to public education data.

Outgoing SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who attended the rally, told protesters the district was going through “huge budget issues.

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

Jeffrey Lapitan, a teacher in the Filipino language program at Longfellow Elementary School, 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 nearly 1,700 unfilled seats in elementary school language streams in the district in 2021-22. The district says it is trying to maintain existing pathway programs by combining classes, with the possibility of expanding them in the future if and when more students apply.

But proponents of the Longfellow program say it has been consistently at full capacity for much of its 10-year existence – until the pandemic hit – and will soon be again. They recently reached out to families to encourage more students to enroll, and hundreds of people 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 helps lead the organizing effort. “It’s really, really behind the district to do it, kind of like silence. They didn’t even give a warning.

The teachers of the program were the first to mobilize, alerting the 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 point of honor to organize themselves by e-mail, by SMS. They have their own little text thread group to arrange play dates 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 that everyone wore at the rally, Lapitan says. “So really, just using those personal connections.”

The parents also reached out to [email protected] Educational Partnerships, which is part of a larger network of Filipino ethnic studies classes at local middle schools and several high schools founded by students in San Francisco State. And they notified the Filipino Community Center, created out of a Filipino workers’ rights movement in 2005, which was linked to supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who represents the Excelsior.

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

This organizing instinct, she says, is deeply rooted in a long history of Filipino activism in San Francisco and California. It’s a story she can recite with ease, from the pioneering Filipino organizers who helped lead the fight for farmworker rights in the 1960s, to the movement in the next decade to save the International Hotel, a building low-income in the heart of San Francisco’s Manila neighborhood.

“We are scrap metal workers. We are used to being in front of the fight,” she said. “So to say this fight is over, I think is to overlook the story of how relentless Filipinos are.”

At the end of June, Santiago finally learned that his daughter had been accepted at Longfellow. But other families she knows have not been so lucky.


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