Preparing Hispanic Parents and Children for School

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 7 12:54:33 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  September 7, 2006

Preparing Hispanic Parents and Children for School


GARDEN CITY, N.Y.  Chunky yellow Play-Doh hamburgers, jars of
primary-color paint and cardboard letter tiles filled up part of a room at
the Long Island Childrens Museum here. Nearby on a carpet, a group of
children stared up at a teacher who turned a book around to show them the
pictures. It wasn't exactly a scene in a kindergarten classroom, but it was
close. The museum room is designed to resemble a kindergarten, complete
with a teacher and structured activities, as a way to introduce children
from immigrant Hispanic families to an American classroom before they walk
into one today for their first day of school.

A total of 60 children attended the first summer sessions of the museums
pre-school program, Juntos al Kinder, Spanish for Together to
Kindergarten. They were from five Nassau school districts Hempstead,
Freeport, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury with large numbers of families
who speak little or no English at home. Census figures show that since
2000, immigrant populations have grown faster in the suburbs than in New
York City, a shift from traditional patterns in which immigrants first
settled in cities offering lower-cost housing and jobs. That change is
readily visible in Long Islands public schools, whose student populations
are increasingly diverse.

In Uniondale, 16 of the children in the museum program will begin
kindergarten. The number of Hispanic children in the district who speak
only Spanish or limited English has tripled in the last five years,
according to Brenda Williams-Jackson, the principal of the Northern
Parkway Elementary School in Uniondale. Starting school is a considerable
challenge for any child, and language barriers make it even more
difficult. The children will find that the signs are in English, everyones
speaking English, anyone you come across cant communicate with you, Dr.
Williams-Jackson said. Heather DeTommaso, one of the teachers in the
museum program who taught kindergarten in Uniondale for eight years, said
Hispanic students who could not speak English were often overlooked.

They would be very quiet to the point where they would be silent and
wouldn't even speak Spanish to other kids, Ms. DeTommaso said, recalling
students in some of her classes. This would go on for months until, say,
Christmas, when they would open up. Ms. DeTommaso rarely saw the childrens
parents, she said. The reason, she suspects, is that they just didn't have
the information about their role in the classroom. In the museums program,
parents attended classes one day a week, learning how to get involved in
school activities and how to teach children through play.

On a recent day at the museum, Maria Isabel Martinez was teaching a class
of 13 parents 12 women and a man whose children, including older brothers
and sisters, were in a downstairs classroom. Speaking in Spanish, the
teacher brought up a range of topics in an informal discussion as the
parents listened, some taking notes. One woman had her laptop computer
open. Help children prepare for school using simple methods at home, Ms.
Martinez said, incorporating household chores to teach numbers setting the
table for four, for example or passing along the wisdom of such common
Spanish proverbs as a bee cannot make a beehive alone.

Ms. Martinez has been teaching bilingual education in private and public
schools on Long Island for 15 years. In Latin America, parents leave the
job to the school to do it all, Ms. Martinez said. But in America, parents
are expected to be more active. It is intimidating if you're not fluent in
the language to go into a school and ask questions, she said. Like most
parents, Ms. Martinez added, Hispanic parents want their children to
succeed. But by the time their children enter kindergarten, many of their
English-speaking peers have had three years of preschool learning about
letters, numbers and classrooms. The reason this program is successful is
because there is a big need in the community, Ms. Martinez said of Juntos
al Kinder.

Rosa Jimenezs son, Jason, now 7, started kindergarten two years ago. I
didn't know any English and couldn't communicate with the teachers, she
said, speaking in a combination of Spanish and English. I didn't really
know what was expected. She enrolled in the museum program with her
daughter, Katherine, 5, to learn how to make school easier this time
around. Aracely Vega is starting early by enrolling her only child,
Sebastian, 3.  It is hard work trying to make her son feel comfortable in
a foreign country, she said, speaking in Spanish. Its difficult because
here they teach parents to get involved from the early years, Ms. Vega
said. In Venezuela, they just called the parents when the kid was in
trouble. The museum classes for parents are critical, said Peggy Miller,
principal of the Columbus Avenue School Early Education Center in
Freeport, where a third of the children entering kindergarten in the
district speak limited English.

The parents are being educated in their responsibilities that its
important to come to meetings and make sure the child comes to school
every day and that they're checking homework and notes, Ms. Miller said.
For all its benefits, some critics have said the program promotes the
isolation of Hispanic children. It causes them to cluster together even
before they arrive in kindergarten, and so immigrant youngsters
unwittingly hold themselves back, said the Rev. Allan B. Ramirez of the
Brookville Reformed Church in Glen Head. By not integrating, by not having
friends in the Anglo, more middle-class community, they do not see a world
that they can aspire to, said Mr.  Ramirez, who has been an advocate for
immigrant workers. But immigrant parents cited the program for helping
them navigate the public school system. I learned how to help my daughter,
Ms. Jimenez said.  To make sure she's not afraid of school.


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