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Photo by Nicholas Ruiz-Huidobro Magdits

Welcoming Words

Necesitamos ayuda!” pleaded one of the students as he tugged the collar of his white uniform polo shirt, exasperated because the digital Sasquatch on his screen wouldn’t move. “You just need to press here,” replied the young girl at his side, “See?” Although their teacher had been leading the coding lesson in Spanish, the two kindergarteners comfortably switched from one language to the other. These students, along with eight of their peers, huddled around a table inside their school’s new language development STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) lab, the latest addition to a budding bilingual literacy project at Fair Haven School.

With fifty-three million people of Latin American descent, the United States boasts the second-largest population of Spanish speakers next to Mexico and is expected to be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world by 2050. In places like New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood, whose population is over 60 percent Hispanic, bilingualism is already the norm. As of last year, 46 percent of students in New Haven Public Schools have Latin American heritage, and eighteen percent are English Language Learners (ELL). Of those ELL students, 85 percent speak Spanish as their native language. Fair Haven School has the largest share of ELL students out of all schools in the city of New Haven.

Although the United States has no official language, English has been the traditional language of instruction in most classrooms across the country. Hispanic students, according to a 1997 report by the National Research Council, were once expected to “sink or swim” in a school environment that didn’t take their linguistic background into account. In February, the National Center for Education Statistics reported consistent underperformance in reading and math by Hispanic students when compared to their white counterparts in the past three decades. But dual-language programs, which are specifically designed to make education for ELL students more equitable, have been shown to increase academic achievement in these populations.

For the last four years, Fair Haven School—a district magnet school that largely serves residents of the Fair Haven neighborhood—has been adapting to community needs by shifting its curriculum towards a dual-language immersion program. Under this model, students are taught all subjects in both English and Spanish, encouraging native speakers of both languages to become bicultural and biliterate. The program has grown to include one more grade each year since its inception and is currently offered for grades K-3. Along with its new STEAM lab, the dual-language program represents a break from traditional education for non-anglophone students.

Following a giddy group of children walking into school after a field trip, I sat down to talk with Heriberto Cordero, the enthusiastic and down-to-earth principal of Fair Haven School, the largest elementary school in the district. Every once in a while, our conversation paused when students came into his office—where his doors were always open—or when he stepped out to greet someone’s grandmother. Cordero views his close relationship with students and their families as a point of pride.

Born and raised in New Haven, Cordero learned Spanish from his Puerto Rican family at home and only learned English once he started going to school. Cordero credits New Haven for much of his own education—the city’s New Haven Promise scholarship program gave him the opportunity to obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Quinnipiac University on a full ride. In return, he wants to build up the community that so profoundly informed his own life. Cordero noticed that New Haven’s language programs needed dramatic improvement. “It’s something so simple, showing the students that we appreciate their language,” he said. “Growing up here, it wasn’t like that. The only valued language was English—you could forget the rest. Spanish, Arabic… nonsense!”

When Cordero began working at Fair Haven School five years ago, the ultimate goal of the ELL programs at the school had been to transition students to a monolingual, English classroom as quickly as possible. However, this emphasis on English acquisition risks the students’ losing their native language, which Cordero sees as a problem.

“Here at Fair Haven, we value all languages,” Cordero said. “Your language is not something I want to take away. It’s something we should nurture and support as a school.” Cordero’s dream is eventually to have an entirely bilingual school.

Such a dream was hardly imaginable to me when my parents, both immigrants from Peru, took me to my first day of school in a small Virginian town. Like Cordero, I was born in the United States but grew up only speaking Spanish at home. When I walked into the classroom, it was like stepping into an entirely different country. I didn’t learn to speak in a way my classmates could understand until about halfway through kindergarten, and, even then, I had difficulty managing the foreign sounds of English. My kindergarten teacher tried to teach herself some Spanish so that I could feel included in her classroom, but there was nothing remotely comparable to Fair Haven School’s dual-language immersion program, let alone a bilingual STEAM lab.

The language development STEAM lab is the first of its kind in the district, and its implementation has set Cordero’s dual-language program apart from the others in New Haven. As we spoke in his office, Cordero spotted Francisco Cajaraville Bonilla, the bilingual teacher from Spain in charge of the new STEAM lab, and invited him to join us. Our ensuing conversation flowed between English and Spanish, with tinges of Spanish, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian accents coloring our words.

Regardless of what language the students speak, Cajaraville argued, the lab—which functions as a weekly “specials” class alongside music, art, and physical education—allows them to use the abstract concepts they learn in math and language courses and apply them to something practical that they can visualize. Depending on the class’s dominant language, Cajaraville pushes students to learn the vocabulary for the technology they use in the less dominant tongue. If students are more comfortable with Spanish, for example, Cajaraville teaches them the terminology in English but provides definitions in Spanish.

Cajaraville decided it would be easier to show me how his classroom functions rather than to explain it, so he invited Principal Cordero and me to observe his Spanish-language kindergarten computer science class. Students were learning the fundamentals of coding through a tactile iPad game called Coding Awbie. In the game, players put together command blocks with buttons that guide a Sasquatch-like figure through a maze. As Cajaraville stepped over robot mazes and picked up 3D-printed action figures that former students had made, he pointed out how the children were working together, emphasizing his efforts to teach the students what he calls “transversal values” like collaboration, cooperation, and nonviolence to achieve their goals.

As Cajaraville showed showed me the lab’s equipment, a little girl with a ponytail trailed  curiously behind her teacher, hoping he would make the small blue robot move again.

Technology, like the bilingual nature of the classroom, allows for individualization, Cajaraville said. “It allows each student to go at their own pace, and the teacher can make sure no one gets left behind without holding the more advanced students back.” If students want to keep going, they can keep going. Two of the girls from his second-grade class—who, according to Cajaraville, once started crying because the Internet was down and they couldn’t code—ended up writing over a thousand lines of code that year, more than doubling the other students’ averages. One seventh-grader who learned about music editing from Cajaraville two years ago now makes music mashups and posts them onto his YouTube channel, which currently has over one hundred thousand subscribers.

Although the class is officially bilingual, coding is another language taught at the school, and it’s one the teachers are still learning as well. Cajaraville uses the MIT-developed visual coding language Scratch with his students, but one of them, a boy named Juan, came in one day with questions about Python, a more advanced language. “I had no idea how to use Python,” said Cajaraville, “but I told him not to worry. We’re going to learn together.” In a STEAM lab like his, where the transmission of knowledge is no longer unilateral, the traditional concept of a teacher dissolves. Drawing on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s pedagogical model, Cajaraville argued that the “banking” model of education—in which the teacher has the knowledge and deposits it into the child—is no longer considered the most effective. “There are too many things the teacher doesn’t know, but if the students want to learn, we’ll either learn together, or they’ll teach me. Knowledge needs to be transmitted in every direction.”

Cajaraville now spends a lot of time in the local public library studying more advanced coding so he can help his students push their own intellectual boundaries. Cajaraville’s students are eager to learn—one even expressed wanting to program his own version of the video game Fortnite—and he’s willing to help them get there.

For Cordero, this language development STEAM lab proves something very important about the necessity of Fair Haven School’s dual-language immersion program; namely, that language is often one of the only barriers that prevent these kids from excelling in STEAM fields. “Five years ago, the kids here never had the opportunity” to learn computer science, especially in their own language, Cordero said. “Now I have a school of nine hundred students who are way more advanced than I am. I am so proud! It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak English, that doesn’t hold you back anymore.”

In Cordero’s and my own experience, starting school only knowing Spanish led many teachers to assume that the non-anglophone children were less intelligent or capable because they didn’t understand the material. In Fair Haven, however, students are working on advanced coding projects from a young age. The issue clearly wasn’t the material. It was the language. “In order to gain bilingual proficiency in a language, it takes about seven years of consistent work,” said Cordero. “Are you going to wait seven years to start teaching these children? Absolutely not. The learning has to continue, and that’s what we try to do here.”

While the burgeoning dual-language immersion program has brought positive change to the school, it is still in its formative stage. As more and more refugees and immigrants resettle in Fair Haven, the demand for educational resources in languages other than English and Spanish is also rising. During a parent-teacher conference, an Afghan family mentioned to Cordero that their children were coming home having forgotten some of their native Pashto—now the second-most spoken non-English language in Fair Haven, followed by Arabic—since they couldn’t practice it at school. When they asked Coredero  what could be done, he immediately talked to New Haven’s ELL Programs Director Pedro Mendía-Landa. “We’re now seeing about incorporating Pashto lessons for these students for about twenty minutes per day,” Cordero said.

Even with the dedication that administrators and teachers like Cordero and Cajaraville demonstrate to their students, maintaining a program like this is not an easy job. Finding teachers with the linguistic capabilities and the necessary certifications to teach in multilingual environments is difficult, but retaining them is even harder. “It’s a grueling job,” Cordero said. Bilingual teachers need to relay the same material twice, adapting it to two groups of students with different first languages. The New Haven Independent reported in November of last year that New Haven’s public school system has approximately fifty certified bilingual teachers for the more than 3,500 ELL students in the district. Hiring more and retaining the few they have is of the utmost importance.

Although there are similar dual-language immersion programs across the country, Cordero is confident that none has a language development STEAM lab as good as his. Once he realizes his plan to expand the program to every grade in the school, Cordero said, “Va a ser nítido”—it will be amazing—“because it will be a program like no other.” With diligent and motivated educators like the ones at Fair Haven School, students may soon no longer have to dream—as I did—about attending an entirely bilingual school.

– Nicholas Ruiz-Huidobro Magdits is a junior in Trumbull College.

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