Songkhla Nguyen could have applied to teach at any school after she graduated in 2010 with a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts Boston, but she had her sights set on just one — the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.
At the Mather, the oldest public elementary school in America, Nguyen has the opportunity to teach some of the young Vietnamese immigrants who have been increasingly calling Dorchester home, and is able to provide the type of mentorship that she, a Vietnamese immigrant, never had in grade school.
Asian students, mostly Vietnamese, make up more than 30 percent of the Mather student body, reflecting Dorchester’s nearly 40 percent Asian population. The neighborhood is home to the fifth largest Vietnamese community in the country. “I hoped to use my experience as an Asian-American student to support them,” says Nguyen, 28, whose family fled Vietnam as refugees in 1984.
As a new teacher, Nguyen also quickly learned that she could rely on her former instructors and their new students at the nearby UMass Asian American Studies Program in Dorchester, which had already been trying to help build programs for young Asian-American students, specifically at the Mather. “It all just made sense,” says Nguyen, who grew up in suburban Rockland, where she found few other Vietnamese speakers with whom she could relate. “I thought about the school, I thought about the student population . . . and we had students [at UMass] who wanted to help, and learn, and it was just a way of trying to make sure it happened.”
For Peter Kiang, professor of education at UMass Boston and director of the Asian American Studies Program, the partnership between the schools is also a way to focus on educational support for the Asian-American community. “It’s thinking about support for the teachers, support for their students, and support for their families,” Kiang says.
The partnership between UMass and Mather teachers dates back to 1993, when Kiang’s former student Loni Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee, began teaching a fourth-grade bilingual class at the Mather. As part of their studies, UMass Asian American Studies and education students helped by designing curriculum, tutoring, and conducting classroom research about the Mather students’ experiences. The educational materials they created featured cultural lessons the grade-schoolers could identify with.
The partnership faded not long after, once the state scrapped bilingual education classes in 2002. A parents’ support group that had been based at the Mather quickly eroded, according to Kiang. But in recent years, Kiang says, he has increasingly heard from new students at UMass who spoke of their appreciation for a grade school education that was sensitive to their Asian-American heritage. Some of those students had gone to the Mather — and were Loni Nguyen’s students. “These are community kids, these are Dorchester, Vietnamese-American community kids,” who have gone on to succeed at UMass, Kiang says of his new students.
Though bilingual programs are no longer allowed in Massachusetts public schools, the Mather has since developed the largest Vietnamese Structured English Immersion program in the state, and teachers have had to undergo new training and personal development to help students with curriculum.
And, once again, based in large part on the new connection with Songkhla Nguyen, the Asian American Studies students have been helping over the last three years to plan curriculum, teach lessons, and provide mentoring, all the while creating lessons that reflect the young students’ culture.
One UMass class authored children’s books with themes from Asian-American culture. Another class is collecting stories from grandparents, so that reading materials can help students learn of their ancestry. A third class is looking at ways to build new connections between the school and parents.
Six of the Vietnamese immersion program teachers — one a long-term substitute — at the Mather have graduated from UMass Boston, and three of them are graduates of the Asian American Studies Program.
Emily Cox, the Mather’s principal, says the partnership has been priceless, as the school has seen a new wave of immigrants in recent years, mostly from Vietnam. Each grade level, from prekindergarten through third, has an immersion class that is filled to capacity. Students in grades 4 and 5 have a combined class.
Cox says the goal of any immersion class is to introduce non-English-speaking students into mainstream classes, but the UMass mentors have also helped the young Vietnamese students culturally by serving as role models. A hit each year, she and Nguyen say, are annual cultural parties, particularly the celebration of the new Lunar Year.
“I think there’s a strong sense of Vietnamese heritage and pride that is instilled from the teachers to the children,” Cox says. “I think it’s great for our young Vietnamese children to see positive role models of similar backgrounds.”