Guest Column: Local schools adapt to changing populations

Five years ago, when I was writing my book about Greenport’s immigrants, a parent asked me to translate into Spanish a notice from her child’s school. It announced an event that interested her but, lacking an English-speaker close at hand, she had set it aside until it was too late to benefit.

That would never happen now. 

Greenport and Southold schools have taken unprecedented steps to meet the needs of the non-English-speaking students, primarily Hispanics from Mexico and Central America, who have come through their doors in the past two decades. 

District officials — notably Southold Superintendent David Gamberg, but others as well — have found many ways (some local initiatives, others dictated by New York State) to adapt to their schools’ changing populations and to prepare all students for the multicultural future that awaits us. 

Communication with parents, in person and in writing, is in Spanish and English; secretaries, nurses and counselors interact with students in both languages; Southold High School is experimenting with a delayed starting time for male students with jobs who need to earn money to pay off the debts they incurred to get to America. 

Most important is the employment of many more certified teachers of ELLs (educator jargon for English language learners, whether immigrants or U.S.-born children of immigrants). Five such teachers are now in each school district, though some work only part-time with ELLs and also teach other subjects to students whose first language is English. They are novices and veterans; the éminence grise is John Myers in Southold, whose high school students — most of them recent immigrants — put out a journal of essays in English every year.

As I interviewed these teachers recently, I realized that their backgrounds and responsibilities are complicated beyond the understanding of civilians like me. Several were themselves ELLs when they were young. For Daniela Norte, who teaches high school in Greenport, the experience inspired her professionally, but Evelyn Balcacer (in Southold) says, “All the mistakes were made with me,” noting that her struggle to learn English was very isolating.

For all of the teachers, the job calls on much more than pedagogical aptitude, linguistic facility and university training (they must have M.A.s). In addition to English, they are teaching culture, whether it’s the norms of classroom behavior or of teenage courtship.

Most of the youngest students were born in the U.S. and pick up English very quickly. “The little guys are sponges,” says Rebecca Lillis, head of the Greenport program. As for other lessons, they learn about the culture of school just as their English-speaking peers do. “Who is sitting on their bottoms?” Tara Polistena asks her Greenport kindergartners gently, and, “Sometimes we have to turn off the sillies” — universal reminders for 6-year-olds. But some elementary students have had little or no education in their home countries, and a teacher may encounter a newly arrived fourth-grader who does not know how to hold a pencil. 

Most challenging for the teachers is the acculturation of adolescent ELLs, who are often recent immigrants with painful histories and ambivalence about education. Detained at the U.S. border, they may be in the classroom only because a court has mandated it, or they may think that having to take history or science or math is a waste because all they really need is to learn English. They may eat hamburgers and admire hip-hop, but introducing them to American standards of socially acceptable behavior (most are male) and convincing them that American measures of success are attainable is uphill work. 

But local teachers are rising to the task. Ms. Lillis is proud of the student who had no English when he arrived but is now studying to be a police officer. “And we have students who initially can say only ‘hi’ and ‘bathroom’ but by the end of year they are telling you what they did over the weekend,” she says. Mr. Myers reports that five of his students who came to the U.S. as teenagers graduated last year with Regents diplomas from Southold High School; three went on to higher education. 

The demographic shift underway in this country is tectonic; we will be a majority-minority country in a generation. Even as they assimilate, immigrants and their children are constructing the economy that will result. In the New York metropolitan area, six million immigrants paid $66 billion in taxes and spent more than $154 billion on goods and services in 2016. In our Congressional district, immigrants, who now make up more than 12% of the population, share with the native born the beauties and opportunities of the East End. 

Teachers on the North Fork who work with the youngest of new Americans are not merely ushering them into this anticipated world; they are actively producing their future in it.

Ms. Gordon lives in Greenport. She is the author of ‘Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America.’