Footscray Primary School's decision to change its bilingual teaching from Vietnamese to Italian has parents and teachers grappling with what a bilingual program needs to be successful.
A mural by Van T Rudd in Footscray, in support of the campaign to save Footscray Primary School’s Vietnamese bilingual program.
The school and the Education Department say significant problems finding Vietnamese teachers led to the change, and the language will still be offered as a subject.
But parents campaigning to reinstate the program, in which the Victorian curriculum was taught in both English and Vietnamese, say the situation is more complex. They cite a lack of investment and poor communication from the school, plus the changing demographic of Footscray as more white families move to the area, as factors affecting the decision.
"The thing is school leadership. They don't value Vietnamese," parent Tony Bui said.
For Andre Dao, a writer and human rights academic supporting the campaign, the fate of the program implies an unconscious bias in which some languages are considered more prestigious than others.
"If you talk to the administrators or other parents, none of them would express ill feeling towards Vietnamese, but it's more to do with certain kind of aspiration to what is seen as economically useful," he said.
At Richmond West Primary School, principal Tip Kennedy has had great success running a bilingual program in Chinese with a smaller stream of Vietnamese. She said the key was the school, parents and local area being on the same page.
"Any new program has to have the support of the whole community," she said. "In Melbourne we have a huge Chinese community and our families that don't have Chinese heritage, they know it's a beautiful culture with a beautiful history and a really interesting country."
The introduction of a French bilingual program last year has helped Fitzroy Primary School thrive.
For years the inner-city school had been struggling with enrolments. Some in the Fitzroy community said the school was a victim of "white flight", when affluent white parents send their children to schools not zoned to include commission housing towers. New principal Angela Richmond says that wasn't the case.
"The school didn't have strong enough community connections, like with local kindergartens, to tell its own story," she said.
"The feedback was, 'We haven't known what to say, we didn't know anything about you.' "
Then the parent-run French Bilingual Association approached the school asking it to start a program and promising a much-needed spike in enrolments.
Locals have embraced the school's new chapter, real estate agency Nelson Alexander volunteered to create a promotional video and enrolments have doubled.
"It's more about the school evolving to become socioeconomically, culturally and linguistically diverse, which really reflects the Fitzroy area," Ms Richmond said.
She said she would encourage any principal considering a bilingual program to do community consultation before anything else.
"One of the ingredients is that the principal has a deep understanding of how to lead a bilingual school. When you have parents and community on board it thrives; for any principals, your first step is to create space for that conversation in your community."
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