S.F. elementary schools Russian program in peril

It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday at Argonne Elementary School, which to Zhanna Pernik means it’s time for the first-graders. The room fills with laughter and chatter as 20 kids of varying ethnic backgrounds — Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Latino, black and white — burst through the doors, and find places to sit on the carpet. Pernik rings a small bell to get their attention.

“Good morning, class,” she says cheerfully. “Good morning!” they shout back in unison. “How are you today?” she asks. They briefly discuss the day’s weather — it’s sunny, but mild out.

One note: Everyone in this scenario is speaking in Russian.

Mila Teper leads fourth-graders in a Russian lesson. photo/emma silvers

At Argonne, an almost 100-year-old public school in San Francisco’s diverse Richmond District, Russian class is part of an average day for some 370 students from kindergarten through fourth grade. Each student in these grades takes Russian as part of the regular curriculum; after school, there’s Russian heritage class for roughly 35 students who come from Russian (many of them Russian Jewish) backgrounds.

By the start of the 2012-13 school year, if parents, educators and community members can’t come up with $170,000, the entire program will be gone.

Since it started in 2007, the Russian language program at Argonne has been the only one of its kind in a San Francisco public elementary school, and, as far as Argonne Principal Karen Francois knows, the only one of its kind in California. (There are other immersion elementary schools in San Francisco, but none where a second language is built into the curriculum for such young students at a school where instruction is done in English).

photos/emma silvers Zhanna Pernik teaches first-graders

The program is part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Foreign Language in the Elemen-tary School (FLES) program. Its funding comes from a $600,000 annual grant from the U.S. Department of Educa-tion’s Foreign Language Assistance Program.

The SFUSD disperses that money to language programs — including Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Russian — at seven elementary schools. These schools each received a letter Feb. 8 announcing that the FLES grants would be discontinued for the 2012-13 school year “due to budget cuts enacted by Congress.”

SFUSD officials did not respond to requests for comment.

While the programs at the other six schools could squeak by by making some staff cuts, Francois said, Argonne’s program is the only one entirely dependent on the FLES money. It currently supports two full-time teachers.

“It would be a tremendous loss for this community,” she said.

Mila Teper is both the coordinator of the Russian program and its other teacher, alongside Pernik. Teper, a bubbly, effusive woman who moved to the United States from Ukraine in 1989, teaches mainly the older groups. While the younger kids focus on learning the Russian words for colors, numbers and  the like, many of her 9- and 10-year-olds have three or four years of Russian under their belts, and can converse with relative ease.

As Russia develops as an economic superpower, Teper said, fluency will be a huge asset for these students as they enter the job market.

And for children of Russian descent — and there are probably more in this neighborhood than in any other in San Francisco — the classes, she said, “validate their heritage.”

photos/emma silvers Posters help students learn Russian vocabulary.

Daniel Zilberman was born in St. Petersburg, and his wife is from Moscow. Both immigrated to the United States in the 1990s; they have two sons, Mark, 5, and Joshua, 6, who are enrolled in kindergarten and first grade at Argonne.

“Because our children were born here, we feel very strongly about making sure to give them their Russian culture,” Zilberman said. “We sent them to Argonne in large part because of that program. It’s a window for them into their culture, into their parents’ lives.”

Zilberman doesn’t want to think about the possibility that the district or some other foundation might not come up with enough money to keep the program going for the 2012-13 school year — but if it came to that, he and his wife would probably seek out private Russian language and cultural classes for their children, and might seriously consider moving them to a different school.

It’s not just Russian families who treasure the program. Amisha, 10, and Renee, 9, are friends in the fourth grade who both look forward to Russian class. Amisha’s parents are from India; Renee’s are from Taiwan and Vietnam.

“I understand it when I overhear people talking in Russian, like in restaurants, and I get to practice sometimes with this one delivery guy that works for my parents, so that’s pretty cool,” Amisha said. She’s been taking Russian since kindergarten, in addition to being fluent in English and Punjabi.

Renee, who came to Argonne last year, loves the class, especially when they get to “learn things by having fun,” like when they made blinis (Russian pancakes) for a traditional Russian celebration.

Besides, said Renee, it’s good for her future goals. “I want to be a doctor or a scientist, and it’s helpful to know a lot of languages so you can go anywhere, and have all different kinds of patients,” she said. Renee also speaks Cantonese.

When the bell rings at the end of the day, Teper bids the class goodbye in Russian, pausing to chat with a Russian-speaking grandmother who has come to pick up her grandson. She remains hopeful that the school district will come up with the funding. If not, school administrators plan to seek help from foundations, Russian cultural programs or anyone who could donate even a small amount. A group of concerned parents and educators have launched a Facebook page titled “Save the Russian Program at Argonne ES in San Francisco.”

Parents like David Silberman, who has a second-grader and a kindergartner learning Russian at Argonne, are aghast that the federal government is cutting off funding to the FLES program.

“It’s just an absolute gem,” he said of the Argonne program. “I’m blown away every time my kids read something out loud to me. And do you think what you see here happens everywhere? Latino, African American, all these kids connecting over the Russian language, of all things? It’s beautiful. We have to keep that going.

“The federal government just says ‘Oh, we have to cut a grant,’ and somebody signs something without thinking twice,” he added. “What they don’t realize is that they’re crushing a community.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.