This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Three summers ago, Mingwang Jiang was given a shock. He had studied hard – “worked my butt off,” he explained in his newly acquired idiomatic English – for an exam that would get him into one of China’s best high schools, a school that was a five-hour trip from his home in Fuzhou.
But now he couldn’t go.
“I don’t want to show too much pride in myself, but I was a top student in elementary and middle school,” Ming said. “I got acceptance letter in summer. In June, my mom told me, ‘You have to move to America Aug. 31.’ I was so mad.”
Ming is among the hundreds of teenagers who arrive in Philadelphia each year, not speaking English and expecting to enroll in school. These students place huge demands on the system, especially the people in the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, which has been struggling to offer as much opportunity to each of them as possible.
Ming’s case is one in which they succeeded. His is a hopeful story, one of adjustment, achievement and self-discovery. And it is still being written.
Ming, who is now 18, lived with his mother and sister on a small island in Fuzhou, a southern Chinese city, in what he described as “a very undeveloped area, with not a lot of employment opportunity.” Chinese immigrants from Fuzhou make up one of the fastest-growing communities in Philadelphia and one of the poorest. It is common for families to split, with fathers coming first to prepare a life for their wives and offspring.
Ming’s parents had barely any education in China. His father had come to the United States in 2001; it took him 12 years to earn enough to bring his family. According to Ming, he worked in restaurants in New York’s Chinatown and saved 80 percent of what he earned so that he could start a business one day. While saving, Ming’s father lived in spartan conditions; most of the rest of his income went back to China to support his family.
"I don’t have father model in my childhood," he said. "He left when I was 2. I couldn’t remember his face. My mom told me, ‘You have to understand father worked his butt off and you have to understand education will change your future.’ That was my first understanding of the importance of education."
Now, his father had issued the summons: It was time to come join him in the United States. Two years before, he had moved to Philadelphia and opened a corner store in Germantown. He was established.
There was no consultation, no negotiating. This was how it would be. So, on Sept. 1, 2013, Ming found himself in New York, then driving to Philadelphia to start a new life.
Not speaking English, not knowing what to do or where to go to get into school, he was lucky to have a cousin who was born and raised in the United States. The cousin took him to the headquarters of the Philadelphia School District on North Broad Street. There, he was directed to the Newcomer Learning Academy for high school-age students who were new immigrants, which was at that time located at Benjamin Franklin High School across Spring Garden Street.
Ming was 15.
He had no proof of his educational accomplishments. Of more immediate concern, he had no proof that he had ever been immunized.
“I have no idea about high school in America, their education system, how school works,” he said.
Just to get in the door, he endured eight vaccinations in one day. “The doctor was so impressed. He said, ‘I never saw a child who had eight shots in one day.’ It was the only way to get into school in America.”
At Ben Franklin High, a hardscrabble Philadelphia neighborhood school, the mostly Black and Latino students were almost uniformly living tough lives. It wasn’t exactly what Ming had expected coming to the United States, but he made the best of it. His determination and hard work caught the eye of several teachers, counselors, and administrators who mobilized to help him.
He excelled in his classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages. ESOL teacher William Mirsky "was really kind to me, patient for me to learn English. The process was very fun for me,” not like English classes in China, he said, where students were given vocabulary words but not told how to use them. Here, he had to speak English and make himself understood.
“We had a specific classroom for people who don’t speak English, which is why we have confidence to speak English,” he said.
The students in his class were from all over and spoke Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepali, Urdu. “It was a very diverse classroom,” he said. “You can feel the sense of America being a diverse country.”
Before the end of his first year, he had moved from ESOL 1 to ESOL 3. By his second year, he was in regular classes at Ben Franklin. Ming calls that “my achievement year.” Under the tutelage of math teacher Victoria Saganti, he and a partner (now at Penn State) went all the way to the state competition with a science fair project analyzing the effects of a sheath called coleoptile on grasses. In the second half of the year, he wrote a monologue that won first place in a competition sponsored by Philadelphia Young Playwrights.
In the monologue, a girl is writing in her diary about how she feels after a betrayal by her best friend. It starts off, “I want a simple life. I want a place where I can leave away the crowds. I want no more drama in my life.”
He did all this while working at his father’s store after school, from 4:20 to 9:30 each night, before he ccould get to his homework.
“It’s tough, but I have to do it,” he said. “My parents have done more for me than I deserve, so I have to pay back. I feel as a young adult, I have to take the responsibility for my parents. They have done everything for me, but I haven’t done anything for them so far. I don’t feel like I did my best. I can do better.”
Ming credits Lauren Murphy, his English teacher at Franklin, as “the first mentor in my life. She gave me a lot of opportunity to express myself.”
But there were others, too, including Cheryl Micheau, the multilingual manager for the District’s network that includes Franklin.
Micheau helped arrange Ming’s transfer from Franklin to Carver High School of Engineering & Science, where he is now a senior, for his last two years of high school.
Ming was also recommended for Central, but he chose the smaller and more specialized school near the Temple campus.
“I want to be a chemical engineer,” he said. “It really is the best choice for me.” When he graduates, he hopes to go to Lehigh University or Drexel University, or maybe Swarthmore College.
Carver principal Ted Domers noted the school’s founding in the 1970s as part of a desegregation initiative, at a time when the District was predominantly African American and White.
“E&S was founded with the mission of providing opportunities in STEM for students that might not otherwise have these educational experiences,” he said. “What Ming has accomplished at E&S is clear evidence of our success. I am humbled by all he has accomplished.”
Carver is now 80 percent African American, 9 percent Asian, 6 percent Latino, and 4 percent White.
Domers and Ming are also quick to recognize the teachers at Carver and elsewhere who helped him along. He realizes that although he works hard, he has also been lucky.
“My experience is different than most people because I’m so lucky with so many people who helped me from the beginning of the day until now,” he said. “I just feel I’m so lucky. For me, somebody was behind me to hold my shoulder and push me forward.” Teachers should encourage all students who don’t speak English, he said.
Although he still faces hurdles, he said: “I am very happy with the life here.”