Carmen Farina is called Chancellor. She is in charge of the New York City Public Schools, and she did not speak English entering first grade. It may be, though, because of Farina’s childhood experience that a new initiative to aid non-English-speaking immigrant school children is being implemented throughout the city.
She remembers vividly what it was like.
“I started school at a time where if you spoke another language you almost were invisible, and I tell the story because I also see myself as a model, where for the first couple of weeks of school, my teacher marked me absent because I didn’t speak English. As far as she was concerned, I wasn’t there.”
That memory might be part of what drives her in this daunting task that requires tremendous planning and focus: Educating 1.1 million students in the five boroughs, including almost 400,000 children who come from households where English is not spoken.
One of the shining lights in this effort is Public School 217, a Brooklyn elementary school with 1,300 students. About 60 percent are from non-English-speaking families, with more than 30 languages used to communicate in their homes.
Call it a coincidence, but the principal of this school, Franca Conti, was seven years old when her family moved to this country from Italy.
“I, too, as an immigrant child know the struggles of a new person coming to the country. Here at 217, they never feel that they do not belong because the whole community embraces them,” she said.
Conti’s staff and teachers have critical language skills that can handle Urdu, Haitian-Creole, Chinese, Spanish and Albanian. They now have added an Arabic class every Friday. Translators and some parents are called upon to deal with additional language needs.
With skilled supervision, the students learn English language skills fairly quickly. The parents are given special attention and have appointment days setup to help them with language issues, and school issues that need clarification.
Tazin Azad, a co-president of the parent’s association, has two children, one in second grade, the other in fourth, who are enrolled at 217.
The mother from Bangladesh also represents a large group of Muslim families who have children at the school.
“It’s a place for thriving,” said Azad. “I mean, obviously, the first situation or the environment to learn for a child is at home and we’re comfortable that this is our second environment. We work simultaneously to raise them and they feel very much at home here at 217.”
The Stislow’s, John and Stephanie, both teach, as unpaid volunteers, a graphics design class for 5th graders. They also have two daughters at Public School 217.
Stephanie said the girls “really like the school, we really like the diversity, we like the teaching, all the extra programs.”
Lawyer Ron Russo teaches the students chess every Friday. His son graduated from PS 217 30 years ago.
“The world could take a real lesson from PS 217,” said Russo. “Everybody gets on well and learns to live with one another.”
The school emphasizes reading, math and the arts. Every week there are 25 different clubs to enrich the educational experience. Many of them are supervised by parents, or parents aiding teachers.
“Through the arts, with the use of music, dance, performance, fashion, the children get acclimated quickly, make friends, and have a very positive experience,” said Conti.
“The thing that we do here at 217 is try to place the children in classrooms where there are other children from similar backgrounds, and soon they have a buddy right away, and then they know that everybody in this building comes from different parts of the world and we’re all here to support one another.”
Conti sums it up. “Here at 217, they’re our children and we love them very much. And knowing that they feel safe and as a result of it, they grow physically, emotionally, psychologically and we’re very proud of them and they know it.”