Changing the Landscape: Brooklyn’s First Japanese Program

PS147’s Japanese Dual Language Program

After hearing of several dual-language programs in New York City and Los Angeles public schools, five Brooklyn mothers decided they wanted nothing less for their children. As no such program existed nearby, they took on the challenge of creating a Japanese-English dual-language program from scratch—the first of its kind in New York City. The five mothers included Japanese Yumi Miki, Swiss-Japanese Monica Muller, Korean-American Hee Jin Kan, Taiwanese-American Yuli Fisher, and Chinese-American Lanny Cheuk. Yumi and Monica were the only two among the group who were able to speak Japanese fluently; the three others had little to no knowledge of Japanese, and no significant connections to Japan or the Japanese community. They met each other through a summer playdate group, Summer Hui, a subgroup of a well-known online network of parents in New York, Brooklyn Baby Hui. Through this summer group, these mothers organized playdates for their toddlers and gathered regularly in local parks. The five mothers became fast friends and soon got to talking about schools. They had heard of a successful French dual-language program that opened in a public school nearby and began to imagine what a similar program in Japanese would look like. Beginning with these informal discussions in playgrounds and parks, the group started organizing and developing a plan to make their dream program a reality.

Fortunately, the moms shared similar views on multilingual education. They believed that exposure to other languages during childhood was important, and they understood the potential advantages and academic benefits of a strong dual-language program. Most importantly, they shared the same desire to change the school landscape, as one of the mothers beautifully described:

We felt it would be easier to create our own program as a way to elevate another school in the district. The reason why it’s so stressful for parents in New York to apply to Kindergarten or pre-Kindergarten is that the disparity between the good schools and the bad schools is so large. We saw a dual-language program as a way to contribute to the school and the community, to bring a better education to more children, and to provide a bilingual education to our children. We wanted to change the landscape with the Core Curriculum, No Child Left Behind, and all the testing being used to assess teachers and schools. I thought, “What can I do as an individual to work around that and provide an education to my child that I think is better?”

With this goal in mind, the group reached out to people who had experience in creating similar programs, including myself. Together, they worked tirelessly as a team and followed and adapted the roadmap—a condensed version of the one presented in this book—to fit their project’s needs. Through it all, they understood that they were pioneers and that in order to succeed they would have to convince the Japanese community, school leaders, and a school community of the merits of their endeavor.

A Model is Found

The newly-formed Japanese Dual-Language Program group started out by exploring existing programs and researching effective models. They quickly found two public schools in Glendale, California, in the Los Angeles area, that had offered two-way Japanese-English dual-language programs since 2010. The Glendale program was initiated by a number of parents who collected signatures and eventually went before the school district to request a bilingual curriculum. When they were granted approval, the program was inaugurated with one 1st grade class and two Kindergarten classes. At Glendale, half of the day is taught in Japanese and the other half is in English, by two sets of teachers. This is called the “side-by-side model.” Approximately 40 percent of the school’s population is fluent in Japanese when they enter the program. Some children have Japanese parents, some are Japanese-Americans, and some have no Japanese background but have parents who are very interested in Japanese culture, or who learned Japanese when they themselves went to college. When prospective parents tour the school, administrators make sure that these parents are truly interested in Japanese, as parents must commit their children to the full seven-year program, from Kindergarten to sixth grade. (Understandably, it is incredibly difficult for a school to replace children who suddenly leave after spending a few years in a dual-language program. This is, by and large, due to the fact that children who come to fill a spot at a later date must already have a good command of both languages to keep up with their peers who have been in a dual-language program since they started school.)
The Japanese dual-language program in Glendale teaches reading and writing in Japanese from the start, using hiragana characters in Kindergarten and adding katakana and Chinese characters in 1st grade. Although intensive and fast-paced, the program leaves room for fun activities and the use of technology such as smartboards. More importantly, students in the program have done very well academically. Five years after launching the program, the school conducted its own analysis of English test scores. From their data, the school found evidence that, after five years in the program, dual-language students outperformed students in monolingual programs in English.

The school’s Japanese language teaching staff is composed of Japanese natives, a few Japanese-Americans, and one teacher who worked in Japan and whose husband is Japanese. On the English side, monolingual teachers teach two alternating groups of students in English all day. English-speaking teachers do not have to understand Japanese—which forces students to only speak to them in English. The reverse is true for the Japanese language teachers. An advantage of the side-by-side model is that it reduces the number of target language teachers needed for the program. This helps manage the challenging task of finding qualified teachers who speak Japanese, have California teaching credentials, and are permitted to work in the United States. Additionally, the school hired a few advisors and university professors to help at the onset of the program. All these points were taken into consideration by the school’s leadership team with the support of parents. Together they formed a powerful collaboration.

A Brooklyn Program is Formed

Our five mothers in Brooklyn used these valuable findings in Glendale to strengthen their argument and build their strategy. They also researched New York’s Japanese community to gain a better understanding of which parents would be interested in the program. Yumi and Monica became the group’s liaisons with the Japanese community. They were soon able to leverage the connections they made with local Japanese speakers to reach out to a large number of families that were interested in joining the program. This step was key, since having a critical mass of interested parents and eligible students is one of the most effective ways to convince principals of the need for a dual-language program.

With spreadsheets in hand, Yumi and Monica went door-to-door to Japanese community organizations to spread the word. They visited the Brooklyn Japanese American Family Association, a non-profit that sponsors Japanese cultural activities and offers weekend and afterschool programs, and Aozora Gakuen, a progressive school with a hybrid program geared towards Japanese families planning to stay in America. The group also reached out to the Japanese Consulate in New York and the Japan Society, a non-state organization whose mission is primarily cultural and educational.

Different Audiences

One fact that the Japanese Dual-Language Program group soon discovered was that several private Japanese schools were already in existence, but tended to serve children of Japanese people who worked in New York before returning to Japan. These schools were modeled after schools in Japan so that children of expatriates could maintain their language and were prepared to re-enter the Japanese school system when they returned to Japan. Because this system is already in place in New York, many expatriate families would not necessarily consider a dual-language program in a public school for a variety of reasons—the most significant being that dual-language programs do not usually meet Japanese school requirements or even their own expectations regarding the education of their child.

As a result, the group began to reach out to parents who were considering more permanent stays in the United States and who felt it important for their children to develop literacy skills in English. They also targeted families of mixed ethnic backgrounds, especially those with one Japanese parent and one American parent. These families were eager to ensure that their children maintained bilingual and bicultural connections to both countries. The notion that students in a dual-language program could maintain one language while learning another was also very appealing to Japanese parents.

Surveying the community also brought to light some of the concerns that parents held about public schools, including the overall quality of public education in New York City, the food served in school lunches, or even the fear that children in dual-language programs would develop an accent in English or Japanese. In this initial phase of research, the Japanese Dual-Language Program group also found that some private schools were even becoming concerned that the new dual-language initiative was going to poach their teachers.

The group found that if immigrant parents had no plans to return to their country of origin in the near future, they tended to look for a high-quality school with a solid track record of academic excellence to provide a strong educational foundation for their child’s future. Consequently, the group discovered that certain parents were skeptical of the Japanese Dual-language Program project because it did not have an established reputation. This clued in our group that the Japanese Dual-Language Program initiative needed to devote energy to gaining the buy-in of uncertain parents.

It became important to recruit new parents on an ongoing basis so that the group could start to communicate on a larger scale. They used the internet to gather data through online surveys and to post information to keep parents updated on the progress of the initiative. A blog was created to meet several objectives:

Our blog was created to get people on board while giving status [to the initiative]. We posted the roadmap and articles about the benefits of bilingualism, and we just tried to sell the program. None of us really had a blog before, so we just figured everything out. We tried to have a scrollbar on the side with the key points: who we are, how this got started, why we’re doing it, what the school is, what we hope the program will be. You could also just get updates.

Mass communication brought a lot of attention to the initiative, including from Japanese language media outlets in New York and Japan. From five mothers with a plan, the group attracted scores of interested families with enough children to launch an initial class one year sooner than expected. At the same time, they garnered even more interest for the ensuing classes. They also received many requests from families whose children were already in school, who were disappointed that their children were too old to join the program slated to start in Kindergarten.

Finding the Right Public School

Around the same time, the group started touring schools and looking for an administration with a curricular philosophy that would match their vision. The five mothers always visited the schools together and were usually granted a private tour. Lanny spearheaded the visits as she had the most experience working with schools:

Having Lanny as an educator who is familiar with the Department of Education—she worked as a teacher—was very key. When we toured the school, she knew what questions to ask, what to look for in terms of curriculum, how the teachers interacted with the students, the administrative philosophy, and how the administration was. That was really a big help to us. We would not have gotten as far as we did without her knowledge.

It did not take long for the group to find a few schools that they really liked, located close enough to where they lived. Their conversations with the principals also helped them narrow their choices down to two schools in North Brooklyn and, finally, one in Bushwick: P.S. 147.

After deciding on the school, the group immediately got down to planning with the administration. An initial concern of parents interested in the Japanese dual-language program, especially Japanese families, was fear of discrimination. At the onset, they wanted their children to all be in the same class. However, the five founding mothers responded with a compelling counter-argument: they did not want the Japanese dual-language program to come across as an elite segregated class of students. With the help of a few advisors, the mothers and the school leadership team developed a plan to integrate the dual-language classroom into the school, which included having students inside and outside the Japanese dual-language program meet regularly and participate in a weekly joint project. All of this intensive planning ensured that, as much as possible, no child felt isolated or deprived of the learning taking place in the dual-language program or the regular program.

As the initiative received overwhelming support sooner than expected, starting the Japanese program on a rushed time frame meant running into technical problems with the Department of Education’s centralized registration procedure and adjusting to the general bureaucratic pace of the public school system—which was not always as fast as parents expected. Consequently, the initiative experienced delays that impacted the recruitment of families, particularly Japanese-speaking families who lived outside of the school zone. As a result, the first Kindergarten class did not start with the perfect 50/50 mix of Japanese native speakers and English native speakers as anticipated. This was a major source of frustration for the founding members that took quite a toll on the group’s morale. In the end, only one of the original members of the Japanese Dual-Language Program group signed up for the program. The others declined due to personal reasons or moving out of the area.

Nevertheless, P.S. 147’s principal, Sandie Noyola, resisted pressure to drop the initiative. Instead, she opened the program in the hopes that the bureaucratic difficulties would soon dissipate. A Japanese-speaking teacher with the proper qualifications and licenses was hired, and the program launched. A pre-Kindergarten class was established to attract both Japanese-speaking children and children whose families showed interest in the program, providing language and cultural content enhanced by the support of the Japan Society. With a balance of native Japanese speakers and native English speakers, a footing upon which to build the program began to take hold.

A Gift for the Future

Parents, both veterans and new, have taken the lead in supporting and nurturing the Japanese program in Brooklyn. They worked tirelessly to establish a trustworthy reputation among Japanese parents and familiarized themselves with the registration process to aid incoming families in applying and understanding school zoning regulations. They supplemented the school’s budget by establishing an associated non-profit 501(c)(3)23 organization to benefit the school as a whole, both within and outside of the dual-language program. This project is ongoing. P.S. 147 parents’ fundraising efforts have already allowed the school to invest in its students and curriculum by using the funds for things such as purchasing books, covering the cost of field trips, training teachers, and supporting enrichment programs at the school.

The founding mothers’ gift to society is incredibly important, despite the fact that most were unable to reap the benefits of their hard work. As a result of their efforts, New York’s first Japanese-English dual-language program opened its doors in September 2015 at P.S. 147 in North Brooklyn. As we saw, the initiative faced great challenges, from locating a school and enrolling enough students in both languages to funding the program and maintaining interest in the face of major letdowns. Despite the setbacks, the spirit of the founding team was strong enough to push the program past the initial hurdles. Their exchanges of ideas, shared vision, individual commitments, and team efforts were instrumental in creating this unique program. Their initiative continues to progress as a new cycle of parents and educators nurture the budding program. Moreover, several Japanese parents in New York City and beyond have heard about the initiative and have been inspired to create dual-language programs in their own neighborhoods. In this way, our Japanese mothers have inspired others to create their own program themselves, and we have come full circle.
This shared passion and enthusiasm, as well as the proof that it is indeed possible for a group of five mothers to create such a program, have also inspired other linguistic communities to join the movement for bilingual education, as the following stories of the Italian, Russian, and German dual-language initiatives highlight. This is the quintessential story of the Bilingual Revolution. From the efforts and vision of a small few can come an entire movement to bring bilingual education to public schools.

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