Three years after moving to New Haven from Puerto Rico with just a few words of English, Debralee Valentin said adios to Fair Haven School—and hello to her future in a mainstream English classroom.
Debralee (pictured with teacher Doug Bowman), who’s 13, was one of 54 students who graduated Tuesday from Fair Haven School, an 800-student neighborhood school on Grand Avenue. Like the high schools, the city’s K-8 schools held ceremonies this week honoring their graduates.
At Fair Haven, the city’s official welcome center for newcomer and immigrant students, over half of the students who finished 8th grade are not native English speakers. They showed up at the school freshly arrived from foreign countries, figuring out a new language and new customs on top of the usual times tables and science experiments. For the newcomers and their peers, the ceremony marked the beginning of some big next steps.
In a sense, Debralee graduated twice on Tuesday—not just from Fair Haven School, but also from the city’s bilingual program. State law allows students 30 months of bilingual instruction before they must join the mainstream and take English-only classes.
When Debralee arrived in New Haven three years ago from the southwest of Puerto Rico, the only words she knew in English were “hi,” “bye,” and “how are you,” she recalled. She spent her 6th, 7th and 8th grade years learning in bilingual classes, where instruction took place both in Spanish and English.
Debralee worked hard, said Bowman, who taught her for three years. She was “always the first person in class to understand and participate.” Despite having difficulty reading, she wasn’t afraid to take risks and try new words aloud.
Now Debralee, an aspiring chef, is graduating from bilingual education because she has completed the requisite 30 months. She is headed to Eli Whitney Technical High School in Hamden, where instruction will be in English. She was asked how she feels about making the linguistic switch.
“Comfortable,” she said.
Her entrée into high school will be a test of the city’s bilingual program, which was overhauled this year in effort to prepare more students to make it through high school. Fair Haven, which has the most English-languages learners of any city school, was at the center of that effort.
Bowman said he’s confident Debralee will do well.
Joining Debralee at Eli Whitney will be Aris Bastardo. Aris (pictured with his mom, Wendy Juarez), moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic three years ago. Aris wasn’t the best mathematician or the fastest reader, Bowman said. But he “worked hard. He worked every day.” He plugged away at his work and became the top student out of 30 in bilingual education.
Badreldin Ahmed (pictured), another newcomer to the U.S., is preparing to join a mainstream environment after spending two years at a school with a strong international community. The school serves students from all over town who have lived in the U.S. for 10 months or fewer; Badreldin and his brothers and sisters, as well as a nearby family from Iraq, commuted from Westville to attend Fair Haven. Badreldin, of Sudan, moved to New Haven with his brothers and sisters in 2012. An aspiring doctor, he will join an older sister at Metropolitan Business Academy, a magnet high school, next year.
Alondra Martinez (at right in photo) celebrated her milestone by passing on what she has learned to her younger peers. She takes part in Ballet Haven, a free after-school dance program at Fair Haven School. Alondra asked her teacher, Mnikesa Whitaker, if she could choreograph a dance for the graduation ceremony—just as an older peer had done the previous year.
Alondra picked the Beyoncé song, “Listen.” She recruited her best friend, Melady Morocho, to help. The duo spent a month working out the moves. Then they taught them to 11 younger dancers. They found an 8th-grader, Mahaghany Hunter, to sing the vocals.
The message of the song, in Alondra’s words: “Listen to your heart and you can go far.”
The young choreographers ran through a rehearsal Monday along with Whitaker. Like most of their peers at Fair Haven School, the two are heading to Wilbur Cross next year. Alondra will pursue dance through Educational Center for the Arts; Melady is on the waiting list for that program, which pulls students out of traditional high schools to pursue arts classes in the afternoons. The two have dreams of running a dance company together called A & M.
Their first joint production ends with a girl receiving a cap and gown.
Alondra and Melady picked up the count right where she had left off.
They proceeded to call out feedback, just as they had heard their teacher do.
“Sit up straight,” Alondra directed. “You guys have to stop slouching.”
“Focus!” she called out at another time.
Whitaker said she was touched to see Alondra and Melady seamlessly take charge.
“I won’t always be here,” she said. “They need to pass it along to each other.”
Alondra and Melady beamed to see their dance performed.
“I feel like we kind of left a legacy,” Alondra said.
They were asked if they plan to return to volunteer with Ballet Haven, as many alumnae do.
Alondra didn’t hesitate.
“Of course,” she said.
Past stories on Fair Haven School:
• VH1 Gets A Left-Handed Thank You
• Idled Dental Van To Rev Up Again
• Toni Harp & “Toni Harp” Take History’s Stage
• Harries Floats Class-Size Switcheroo
• A “Snowball” Aims At Latino College Gap
• New Recess Rules Kick In
• Boys Find A Place On The Stage
• Bilingual Ed Overhaul Under Way
• New Havener Of The Year
• Common Core Hits Fair Haven
• Firefighters Respond To The Turkey Call
• VH1 Helps 15th City School Start Tooting
• Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
• Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
• Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
• Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
• From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
• As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance