At English-Mandarin Public School, High Test Scores, but Also Strife
By SHARON OTTERMAN
When it opened in 1998, the Shuang Wen Academy was heralded as a new kind of boutique public school, rooted in a mission of cross-cultural understanding. Small and open to children of any background, it was billed as the nation’s first dual-language English-Mandarin public school, teaching fluency in both languages.
Twelve years later, the school, on the Lower East Side, which runs from prekindergarten to eighth grade and has an enrollment of 660, boasts outstanding scores on standardized tests but is in turmoil.
The school is the target of nine city investigations stemming from allegations that it compelled families to pay for after-school instruction, tampered with the city enrollment process, mismanaged its finances and manipulated surveys on parents’ satisfaction with the school. In addition, a series of anonymous, threatening letters directed at the principal and parent leaders prompted the parents association to budget $20,000 for legal assistance and stepped-up security.
The parents association and other supporters say a few disgruntled parents are responsible both for the allegations, which are being investigated by the city’s Department of Education and by Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for the school system, and for the threats.
“The group of three parents that we believe caused these investigations, they don’t like the Chinese after-school program,” said Gale Elston, a parents association co-president. Along with the letters, she said, the allegations are “part of a very organized terrorist hate crime that’s going on at that school.”
The parents who have made their concerns public, meanwhile, say they are the ones who are being ostracized, and they deny making any threats. They allege that a culture of intimidation at the school has kept more parents, many of whom are low-income Chinese immigrants, from speaking out.
“The environment is totalitarian,” said Saultan Baptiste, who has three daughters at the school and is the most outspoken of the parent critics. “It’s ‘you do what you are told; you don’t complain,’ and that’s just un-American.”
Matthew Mittenthal, an Education Department spokesman, said: “We have several open investigations into allegations of misconduct at the school, and we take this matter very seriously. While these investigations proceed, we hope parents, teachers and administrators can work together in the interest of the children.”
Among the issues under investigation is whether an instructional after-school program at Shuang Wen may charge $1,000 per student, as it began doing this year. After-school programs run by private organizations may charge a fee if they are not providing necessary instruction, the city said. Shuang Wen’s after-school program is run by a nonprofit group, the Shuang Wen Academy Network, or SWAN, which was instrumental in founding the school.
A question was raised, however, because though Shuang Wen, which means “double language” in Mandarin, has been called a dual-language program since its founding, it has taught almost exclusively in English during the school day, reserving Chinese instruction mostly for the after-school program, from 3 to 5:30 p.m.
Until recent years, the after-school program was mandatory, but few parents complained. It was free, because of financing by outside donors, including a grant from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. But once financing began to dry up, the program started charging a fee, and some parents objected.
Last year, the fee was $600 per child, and in a letter to parents, SWAN warned that children whose parents did not pay by the deadline would be left unsupervised in the cafeteria. “The safety of the child will be in jeopardy if you come late,” the note said. When subsidies became available last fall, the $600 payments were refunded. This year, however, the fee rose to $1,000.
The school has assured parents, about 75 percent of whom are poor enough for their children to receive free lunch, that the after-school program was no longer mandatory, but some parents say their children cannot succeed at the school without the program, because some instruction in social studies and arts is primarily given in Mandarin.
“We don’t know when the money is enough,” said a parent from China who asked that his name not be used because he was concerned about potential harassment of his children at the school. “There is always more to pay. All the parents think the school is a black hole.”
Ling-Ling Chou, the school’s principal and an ex-officio board member of SWAN, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Ms. Elston, of the parents association, said instruction during the school day remained “exclusively in English” for most grades. This year, dual-language instruction during the school day began in kindergarten and pre-K, parents said.
The city is also investigating whether the school is violating admissions rules. The Department of Education requires the school to admit students through a lottery that gives preference to children from the local district, District 1, which is 62 percent black and Hispanic and 20 percent Asian. Enrollment is supposed to reflect local demographics.
But the school has remained about 80 percent Chinese for a decade. Meanwhile, the proportion of black students, cited as a strength in its early years, fell to 5 percent in 2009, from 10 percent in 2002. Some parents have charged that Ms. Chou, the principal, admits Chinese students outside the lottery process and from outside the district, while discouraging local black and Hispanic parents.
“We strongly believe the admissions process has disenfranchised our son,” Chris Bondi and Marni Roder wrote to the District 1 superintendent in June after their son, who is not Chinese, was denied admission.
Then there is the issue of retention. “A lot of the black and Hispanic families left because they felt it was racist,” said Edward Primus, another parent who has been vocal in his complaints, and who said the school had asked his daughter to report to a social worker, a move he felt was harassment.
The school got straight A’s on its city report card this year, with 83 percent of students passing state tests in English and 97 percent in math. It has a strong record of admissions to top public high schools like Stuyvesant.
Yet the part of the report card based on surveys of parents’ satisfaction is under scrutiny. Several parents said that Ms. Chou warned parents at a meeting in March not to write negative comments on the surveys, because they had chosen to send their children to the school, and that she pressed them to complete the surveys before leaving the school that day.
More than 95 percent of Shuang Wen parents turned in positive reviews.
Tensions rose in May, when Mr. Baptiste confronted the parents association for transferring to SWAN $81,000 in parents’ donations, without calling for a public vote first. A vote affirming the transfer was later held, despite city objections that the process should first be examined; the parents association maintained that the money, collected in 2005, had always been intended for the after-school program.
In May, the first of three cryptic letters appeared on a bulletin board from someone using the name Zero. “Ling Ling,” it said, referring to the principal, “You hurt the children, you lie, you steal money, your turn feel pain.”
In late September, a report that Ping-Pong tables had been vandalized further frightened parents.
“I don’t know why none of you are calling the police,” Dr. Paul Lee, a parent, wrote in an e-mail to the parents association, the principal and other officials. “They are like cancer cells: act now before the cancer kills the patient.”
Since news of the investigations was reported by NY1 News several weeks ago, Shuang Wen’s supporters have aggressively defended the school. Parent leaders have collected hundreds of signatures supporting the after-school program. SWAN held a news conference and issued a statement that said parents and the community “were clamoring for NY1 to be held responsible for damages to the school’s hard-won reputation.”
One parent, Hiuyu Liu, said all her friends and neighbors were quizzing her about what was going on at the school, which is highly regarded in the Chinese-American community. Like several other parents interviewed who support the school, she dismissed the idea that there could be anything worth investigating.
“It’s not fair,” she said, “that parents who don’t want to pay $1,000 are ruining our children’s future.”