TEL HI’s English Learner Academy at Francisco Middle School is Essential for Students Who Face Educational Barriers

August 27, 2020

The English Learner Academy at Francisco Middle school is designed to level the playing field for newcomer students, who face many educational barriers. Through the English Learner Academy (EL Academy)English learners take theater and dance classes, play math games and write personal stories, cook and go on urban treks with Francisco teachers, arts providers, and Beacon program specialists, helping them to gain English proficiency and academic skills and bridge a cultural divide with the larger school community. 

At least a third of Francisco’s nearly 600 students are new to the country, and altogether three quarters are immigrants from around the world, from places as farflung as Africa, China, Venezuela, and Yemen. They often arrive having suffered trauma in their home countries or on their journeys, and they find themselves isolated by language, culture, education, and other factors.  

Many times in a large classroom setting … if they’re lost we don’t know it,” said Cynthia Cen, who leads the English Learner department at Francisco. 

Through the small and interactive EL Academy classes, students immediately begin mastering English and accessing core academic content through fun and engaging classes that also bring them together with other students and adults to help them make friends and become more confident at Francisco. And the academy helps to ensure that during their short three years in middle school they are being prepared to enter high school and take courses they will need to graduate.  

 Shujun “Vivian” Xu enrolled as a sixth-grader at Francisco less than a year after arriving from China. Born in Guangdong, China, she speaks Cantonese as her primary language. Like other English Learners, she could not take arts and enrichment electives at Francisco, including the orchestra and piano classes, because she was required to take English Language Development instead during the school day. Vivian joined the EL Academy after school and quickly became comfortable with English and increasingly involved in school and the Beacon program, where she demonstrated her virtuosity as a piano player. (See her play here: 

 English Learners and newcomer families face socio-economic and emotional stress as they transition into a new country and school system. The pandemic intensified these hardships, as families lost jobs and housing; one girl told her Francisco teacher she had trouble making it to online classes last spring after waking up at one in the morning to cook in her shared kitchen at a Chinatown SRO. Another student’s family got stuck in China during the pandemicHe continued attending the EL Academy three mornings a week during the summerthough it was the middle of the night in China.  

The online summer program consistently drew 40 students over seven weeks in June and July. Teacher Cynthia Cen said it was the only program for English Learners in the school district this summer.


Consistent attendance during summer this year speaks to how much the students and families want it and need it,” Ms. Cen saidMany were incoming 6thgraders and outgoing 8th-graders wanting to increase their English and math skills and stay connected. “They’ve missed out on so much this year,” said Ms. Cen.   

 The EL Academy grew out of an English Club started by teachers at FranciscoThe Beacon built on that foundation to create the EL Academy in 2019 with a one-year $37,000 award from SFUSD. The grant paid for extended hours for teachers and contracts with partner organizations, materials, and supplies. The grant ended in December, but the Beacon sustained the EL Academy by leveraging other funds and with support from the SFUSD Visual and Performing Arts and Multilingual Pathways departmentsAn infusion of $20,000 would allow the program to continue for another year. 

You can support TEL HI’s EL Academy during A Virtual Taste of TEL HI on Friday, September 18 at 6 PM. Click here to register!

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