Whittier Elementary School’s gymnasium was filled Friday with playfully rambunctious kids and their parents. They were there for a potluck dinner and to mark the first event hosted by a newly formed Asian-American parent group in the District 97 public elementary schools.
Karen Su, one of the group’s organizers, spent her time at the dinner talking with friends and making new ones, and watching after daughter Miya, a second grader at Irving, and her 3-year-old son Zeno.
Su and other Asian-American parents began talking prior to this school year about forming the group – which eventually became Families of Asian American Students, or FAASt. While 27 families were part of the potluck, the group itself consists of a handful of parents, said Su, a teacher of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Asian students make up three percent of District 97’s total student population. That small percentage includes students identified as Pacific Islander. Of Oak Park’s roughly 52,000 residents, nearly 2,200 are Asian, according to the 2000 Census.
Su, who is of Chinese heritage, admitted to feeling isolated as a parent new to the district when her daughter started the first grade.
She felt it would be good to have other parents to share experiences with. “There were some things that made me feel like I wanted to connect to other parents,” she said.
The group had its first meeting in December at Dist. 97’s Multicultural Department. Lynn Allen, the department’s director, helped the group organize, said Su.
About 40 parents with children of diverse Asian backgrounds attended that first meeting. Some who attended were adoptive parents of Asian children, and Su discovered that she wasn’t alone in her feelings.
“What struck me at the meeting was that the parents shared very similar issues,” she said. “They all wanted to talk about school climate, the experiences their kids were having in school and the curriculum.”
For Asian-American students, they face certain assumptions, like people asking, “Where are you from?” though they are American, she said. “That’s still the most common experience. People always assume that Asians are foreign and un-American.”
Su, who was born in America and whose parents were immigrants, felt the pressure while growing up of not being accepted as an American
Asian-American boys, Su recalled, were beaten up because they were different, and Asian-American kids today still experience bullying and sometimes fighting from other children.
“I kind of focus on Asian-American issues professionally, but this is really a personal initiative,” she said of helping to form the parent group. “As a parent, I would like this resource, and I would like it for my daughter because as an Asian-American student, I felt that I didn’t have this resource.”
Su discovered that some of her Asian students who were adopted didn’t have a lot of interaction with other Asian kids growing up.
Amy Fenton, whose adoptive daughter is Chinese and a second grader at Whittier, 715 N. Harvey, can see her child already facing similar experiences. Fenton, however, insisted that their parent group can help families learn from one another.
“This is really exciting because this is like a missing link for our community,” Fenton said.
This is the first parent group for Asian-American students in the district that Su is aware of. Black parents and students are represented by several groups, including Parents of African American Children (PAAC) at Beye and Our African-American Children at Percy Julian Middle School (OAAC). APPLE (African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education), an OPRF parent group, has chapters at some Dist. 97 schools. Su would like to talk with those groups concerning how they got started.
The group is still developing, but they’ve got some plans in the works. They’d like to see Asian-American history integrated more into Dist. 97’s curriculum. Oak Park, Fenton said, has a long history of Asians in the community.
The group has gotten a positive reception so far in the community. They had their first meeting with Supt. Constance Collins last week, and they’re getting a lot of interest from other parents. The group’s next step is to get the word out, educate more people and network with other families.
“We’re open to other people joining,” said Su.