The Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program at Rosa Parks Elementary School got the “biggest birthday party ever” Sept. 5, as the entire school, with guests from the Japanese and Japanese American community, came together for their morning assembly.
Students, staff and guests celebrated the birthday early in the morning during the school’s morning assembly, starting with radio taiso (radio exercises) and a series of speeches by government and program leaders.
San Francisco Unified School District Commissioner Alida Fisher and SFUSD Superintendent Matt Wayne expressed their excitement over the program’s 50th year and the JBBP’s unique location next to San Francisco’s Japantown. Fisher, who shares a birthday with the program, said she learned much about the English language by studying a foreign language herself. Wayne, meanwhile, noted the unique opportunity Rosa Parks’ program has, being located close to the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown.
Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasushi Noguchi recalled how his office had intersected with the program in recent years, including a visit by then-First Lady of Japan Akie Abe in 2015. “Our office, including myself and our staff members, have regularly been invited to participate in JBBP program events. When I attended the graduate ceremony, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the language and the performance of the students,” Noguchi said.
Naomi Nishioka, a founding member of the program, reflected on their work. She said a group of community members organized in February of 1973 to convince the SFUSD of the need for a bilingual program. With persistence, they were successful in convincing the school district to let them start a kindergarten through second grade program on Aug. 7, 1973, she said.“
Once approved, the community and families who wanted their children in the program mobilized to find classroom spaces, arranged transportation, began development of a Japanese language and culture curriculum, fundraise(d) for supplies and accomplish the multitude of tasks that are required to start a new program. Our group even interviewed and recommended to the district the teachers and sensei we wanted to hire for the program,” she said. “Twenty-nine days later, on Sept. 5, 1973, 75 students walked into the first day of JBBP.”
Originally started at Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School in 1973, the JBBP then moved 11 times before finding its current home at Rosa Parks Elementary School in 2006. The frequent moves, sometimes even splitting the program to different schools by grade level, prompted the creation of a Parent Teacher Community Council independent of the school, according to Keith Akama, the current PTCC co-chair.
“It is not easy to survive 50 years of anything in this city,” Supervisor Dean Preston, who oversees San Francisco’s District 5 where the school is located, said. “To be here and celebrate with you … is nothing short of remarkable.”
Nishioka, seeing the program she helped found as a teenager, said she was impressed by what it had accomplished. “When we started the program 50 years ago, we had an idea for a concept and none of the details, and so with the families, the families helped develop the program, grow the program, improve the program, enrich the program. So when we started 50 years ago, we probably would never have imagined the program we have now,” she told the Nichi Bei News.
Emily Murase, a parent of former JBBP students, who emceed the program, noted the program’s diversity today, catering to more than just students of Japanese descent. She also recognized the Japanese American movement that first helped establish the program.“
In the beginning, San Francisco public schools were teaching Spanish, Chinese and Filipino, but there was no Japanese program. And it was really mostly the Sansei parents who did not have language, who wanted to make sure that their kids would have the opportunity to learn the language. And it’s kind of a reparation for what the government did in terms of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It was up to the government to restore that kind of language acquisition,” she said to the Nichi Bei News.
Murase went on to say that the program’s graduates have gone on to study Japanese in college and participate in the JET Program or become active in the Japantown community.
“It’s really a critical pipeline for Japanese American activists, language people and diplomats,” Murase said.
The program and school is now helmed by Principal Laura Schmidt-Nojima, a former parent and teacher at Rosa Parks who started as the new principal in August. According to Schmidt-Nojima, both her son and daughter went through the program and she had worked as a literacy coach at the school five years ago. She expressed her amazement of returning to the school and her priorities today.
“We’re trying to get our enrollment back up, because it’s an amazing program and we want more students in it,” she told the Nichi Bei News. Due to low enrollment, the SFUSD cut one of the two kindergarten classes this year. “It is a really diverse program for many kids, it’s a window to another culture or a way to learn more about themselves.”
The Rosa Parks JBBP will host a 50th gala celebration Oct. 14 at the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, visit https://www.jbbpsf.org.
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.