Friday, February 19, 2016

How Our Multiracial 6yo Was Pushed Into ELL

My son as an infant

by Sharon H Chang

This morning I'm headed down to Seattle Public Schools main office to attempt to enroll my 6-year-old in Chinese immersion 1st grade. I feel deflated, defeated, dejected already. This isn't the first time we've tried to get him in this school, but it might be the last. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't depressed. In fact I'm near tears writing this post and don't know if I can even get through it.

I'll try.

My son is Japanese/Taiwanese/white and has been learning Mandarin in immersion programs since he was a toddler. He speaks, sings and writes Mandarin Chinese. He makes jokes and does math in Chinese. He asks his non-Chinese-speaking father for things in Chinese and teases when my husband doesn't understand. He shows his friends his Chinese homework proudly on play dates and shouts out loud when he sees Mandarin characters on TV, in movies, or out in public. When he started public kindergarten, one of the very first books he checked out from the school library he picked specifically because it had Mandarin characters in it.

"We grew up feeling/being shamed for not speaking our Asian family heritage languages while feeling/being ashamed when we saw others sneer at us or our Asian family for those same languages." 

I can't even begin to tell you what a triumph of racial resilience this is for our family; how much our hearts glow when we see our son's blossoming language pride, and not shame. Why? (pause) Do I really need to tell you? Think how many times you've heard Asian languages and accents mocked, parodied, belittled, and scorned. My husband and I - our souls ache, cry and bleed for our own heritage language loss. We're both the mixed race children of Asian immigrant parents. Neither of us speak the native tongues of our mother and father proficiently because our immigrant parents struggled to transfer their languages in a white/English-dominant culture where multilingualism for people of color is considered a cultural deficit FAR more than it ever is an asset. You're in America, you should speak damn English.

We grew up feeling/being shamed for not speaking our Asian family heritage languages while feeling/being ashamed when we saw others sneer at us or our Asian family for those same languages. I think I can safely say most Asian Americans hold some story like this riddled with discrimination and assimilative pain (either from their life or the life of someone they know closely). So my husband and I have worked our asses off supporting our son on a different journey. It's not easy. It's hard as shit. This is our resistance: parenting as a revolutionary act, reclaiming lost language pushed out of our families by a racially hostile society.

But then we started public school.

Dearborn Park International Elementary School is ten minutes (or less) from our house. When my son was about to begin kindergarten Dearborn became, for the first time, an international school which offeres 50 percent immersion learning in Spanish or Chinese as part of the regular school day. We were ECSTATIC. Thoughtful, loving friends and neighbors assured us we'd have no problems getting in. It's a new program. It's so close to your house. There was no waitlist last year, they didn't have enough kids. Plus your son already speaks Chinese!

I remember the day I filled out the public school enrollment form like it happened an hour ago. I got to that part where they ask you what languages your kid speaks. My son speaks Chinese but he's not fluent. English is without a doubt his "dominant" and first language. I said to my husband, "Should I mark that he speaks Chinese and English?" My husband's like, "I don't know." I debated and debated and debated and finally decided - yes. Damnit. My son speaks Chinese. We're proud and if I say so maybe it'll help us get into this school. Maybe - just maybe - my son could speak one of his Asian heritage languages for the rest of his life. Maybe when we went to visit Taiwan or China one day we wouldn't have to feel like strangers in our own land. Maybe he'd get to hold his head high as a young man and say this is part of who I am. I got to keep it. I got to be me. I am me.

Now I'm crying. Cause this next part is like an ice pick to my heart.

We did not get into Dearborn Elementary. In fact we were placed almost as far down a very long waitlist as was possible; just a few spots from the end. Clearly my son speaking Mandarin already was not an enrollment consideration for a CHINESE IMMERSION PROGRAM. I was confused. I called in to ask what hope there was and the woman on the other end bluntly told me basically there was no hope. We were heartbroken. But, we reasoned, things happen. We were overconfident. We'll just try again next year and try to keep our son's Chinese up in the mean time.

But this is what actually happened in the mean time. Before the school year began I started getting multiple irritated calls from the district that my son needed to come down and get his English proficiency tested. The calls came in English at first. Then they started coming in Chinese. Then we started getting mailers in Chinese. I returned the call and said, "Listen to my voice. I'm a native English speaker. English is my son's first language and there's no need to test his proficiency." But the school district demanded I bring him in. At the same time they would not schedule appointments for this language testing and told me I'd have to walk in and wait to be seen. The wait might be short but it might not. I refused to bring him in.

"My son isn't just any 6-year-old is he? He's Asian American and the grandchild of Asian immigrant grandparents."

So. When kindergarten started they pulled him from his classroom without telling us and tested him at school. We found this out later from our kindergarten teacher at his first parent-teacher conference after notices were sent home that he was not meeting English language milestones and I asked what was going on. His kindergarten teacher smiled it off and rolled her eyes. "Any 6-year-old would test this way because they're all still learning to speak English," she assured us. But my son isn't just any 6-year-old is he? He's Asian American and the grandchild of Asian immigrant grandparents. The Seattle School district classified my son as an English Language Learner (ELL) and automatically enrolled him in ELL support. When I went to our school building's main office to contest this classification, our family support worker took one look at me and laughed, "Oh. Let me get a form for you to fill out."

Oh, okay. Just a mistake. We'll get this cleared up in no time. I took one look at the form and it hit me all at once. "Wait a second," I turned to the family worker, "This is just parent refusal of ELL services. It doesn't remove my son's classification as an ELL learner?" "No," the family worker explained simply, casually, without concern, "He won't get ELL services but we'll keep testing him till he proves he doesn't need them. Then the ELL classification will be removed." And my mind went blank as I fought back what was surging up through me. I filled out the rest of the form silently. I left. I went home and wept.

Today I'll go down to those district main offices again and try one more time. I'm tired. No. I'm exhausted. I remember the very first blog post I ever wrote years ago right here was about my son, language and forever foreignness. Years ago. Generations ago. My memory is still weeping - but my body is starting to give in. I could theorize, give you stats, get all abstract, use fancy words. But I don't feel like it. This is simply a story. Our story. It's the story of our family's immigrant history and language. It's a story of loss that we hoped we could rewrite. And today it's a pretty sad story.

Maybe tomorrow it will be better.


  1. When this happens in our district--parents being proud that their child is learning another language and put it on the reg card and they get flagged for the child to be tested it is a federal law-- I suggest that you ask if you can change the reg card to all English. It is a federal law. just change your sons registration card to all English

  2. The same thing happened to my niece who was born in the U.S. and speeks perfect English. She was classified as ELL for years and years.

  3. Was the Mandarin program full? Did they lie to you about the availability?

  4. There was a lottery to get my daughter into her dual immersion school. Her school takes half English native speakers and half Spanish native speakers and mixes them together. First she applied as a native English speaker, but all the slots were taken. Then she tested as a native Spanish speaker (didn't do as well on the test), but was able to get in that way.

    I'm still confused why Dearbornn Park could not let your child attend? It seems they lied about availability or are confused about the registration process because it is a new program for them.

  5. Thank you for the perspective. I am a teacher and I have an ELL endorsement and I always want to learn from families of students. There are an awful lot of politics to why all of this happens and our schools often forget that parents should have a voice in what services are offered and accepted. I agree with the above comment, if you change your home language survey to English than that should stop the testing. However, you may still need to advocate to keep him in the classroom and not be pulled out. One thing you could ask your school about is what they are doing IN the classroom to support all students language learning. There are models for services that keep all students in the classroom so no students are pulled out. Also, do you know if he is being pulled out by an ELL teacher with only ELL students? A lot of these groups are not necessarily just for ELL, they are grouped by ability level. There is a lot of research that this type of pull out, if done right, strengthens students academically. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that pull outs to specifically teach basic English skills is both detrimental socially and academically. The school ELL teacher may be able to help you understand more about how the pull outs work to see if this is unfairly targeting your child or if it is truly supporting your child. In addition, you could find out what to expect up ahead as well. In my experience, most students that come from bilingual homes very quickly test out of services, often by 1st or 2nd grade. I wish you the best! Your son sounds amazing. I'm sure he will excel in school.

  6. I hope that your next visit goes much better...It's ridiculous that your family has become mired in this bureaucratic BS.

    The cynic in me wonders if there's some benefit to SPS in keeping your son enrolled as ELL. Obviously, he's a native English speaker, but if he's classified as ELL, his test scores will be recorded in that demographic (and presumably bump up the average).

  7. I just want to drop a line to say I hear your grief. I'm a biracial, transracial adoptee raising a black adopted son...hoping he will be more accepted by both communities than I am. My son is in 2nd grade now and with every day, every test, every classification I see him either lovingly praised in predominantly white, liberal environments with no black peers or worried about for aggressive behavior and placed with mid to low level achievers in predominantly black settings (run by white teachers with little anti-bias training).

    It is so hard to relive our own ruined dreams, our own painful exclusions while working, *fighting*, *dreaming* that things can be different for our children.

    For today, I will set aside my worries about my kid and dream a bit for you. Because I know what it's like to feel defeated by this. It's too big to hold by yourself.

  8. You should e-mail Kelly Aramaki, the Southeast Director of Education for Seattle Public schools, as well as Board Directors Betty Patu, Leslie Harris and Sue Peters. The e-mail addresses are on

    I think there might be 2 issues here. When the immersion language program started at JSIS in 2000, native speakers had a few spots reserved in the class. I'm not sure that is the case anymore. The programs are very popular and there aren't many of them, and there are many kids who would do well and be assets to the program, but aren't enrolled due to space.

    However, your son, a native English speaker, being placed in an ELL program is curious. Your interest in having your son in the immersion class shouldn't place him in ELL. I'd be curious to see the testing that designated him as ELL and I believe you should be able to see any assessment, even if its not at the school. SPS may insist it be at the JSCEE building and that you can't copy or leave with it, but you should be able to see it.

    I'd also ask to observe the ELL pullouts he's in. I had a Chinese friend (in Boulder) who had trouble refusing ELL services for her son, as the teacher found him a tremendous help in the classroom, translating the teacher for other students. While it's great to help, that wasn't giving him the education he deserved.

    Good luck!


  9. I am shocked and so sorry that this unbelievable situation could have even happened. I'm still trying to get it. How obvious can a mistake be??? I know there is not enough money to get the job done. We have been hearing that and hearing that. I saw it back 35 years ago when I tried to put my child in public school and was rejected before I knew the law that she had to be taken. Long story. But this is a fresh story, and just as much a challenge to one's mental health. I hope your son becomes the superintendent of schools, just because. Or a legislator, if they still exist in this degrading society.

    1. Why was your child disallowed from enrolling in public school? Was your child not legally present in the US?

  10. In the Los Angeles school district every school receives additional funds for every ELL student enrolled. I have friends whose biracial bilingually fluent kid was enrolled in ELL because his english is slightly accented.


  11. I'm sorry you're having to struggle. I've felt jealous of people living in more urban areas than we do that can send their mixed race kids to language classes or have access to language immersion schools, it seems like such an important way to give them some pride and confidence in the ethnicities that went into making them. But it sounds like it's not as idyllic as I imagined.

  12. I am wondering if you tried again this year to enroll in Dearborn Park?