Kids sat down in one classroom. Parents sat down in another.
In that second room, a Yale academic from China and a homemaker from Mexico rehearsed a story about a snake—and began to knock down language barriers separating staff and families at an immigrant-rich New Haven public school.
The scene took place last week at Fair Haven School, a K-8 on Grand Avenue in the heart of the city’s Latino community.
Xiaocui Shen, a sociology fellow at Yale who moved to New Haven from China 10 months ago, and Veronica Benicio, a Fair Haven mom who moved to New Haven from Mexico 10 years ago, were among 25 adult students who crammed the school’s Family Resource Center last Wednesday for English class.
The day marked the opening of a 10-week class that aims to help families communicate better with their kids and with the school, according to Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings. Over half of the school’s 765 students there come from families that don’t speak English at home, she said.
Without English skills, parents can’t help their kids with homework, Gethings noted. And they can’t communicate with many teachers. About one third of the school staff speak Spanish, according to Gethings. The principal does not speak Spanish fluently; the assistant principal does.
“We want to have parent-teacher conferences without translators,” Gethings said.
She said English classes are part of a broader effort to teach parents how to “complement the school’s efforts.”
Language is a particular challenge at Fair Haven. The school serves not only Latino families from Fair Haven, but also immigrant and refugee families from across the city: all new arrivals to the U.S. in grades K to 8 are sent to Fair Haven. Those kids come from all over the globe, including China, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi.
The international mix was reflected in Cherni Gillman’s English class last Wednesday, when parents poured into class for their first two-hour beginning English lesson. Shen and his wife, Ying Xiao, who are visiting Yale for one short year, have a 1st-grader at the school. They joined a row of Spanish-speakers from Puerto Rico and Mexico, most of whom live in the neighborhood. The free classes drew students from 24 to 60 years old. Most had kids or relatives at the school. An assistant teacher minded 16 of their little ones as the parents got to work at 9 a.m.
Gillman warmed up the crowd with a song. “Do you speak English? Do you speak English?” students chanted to the tune of “La Cucaracha,” a folk song that became popular during the Mexican Revolution.
By 10 a.m., they were singing that song to each new student who trickled into the classroom.
Gillman also taught the class “the hip bone’s connected to the knee bone,” and so on, during a couple of minutes of spare time before a stack of photocopies arrived.
The songs set a joyful tone for the class—the first class some of the students had sat through in decades.
Edith Cotrina (at right in photo), a former seamstress who moved to New Haven from Perú 14 years ago, said she had not taken English classes before. She teamed up with Shen to execute a “pre-reading” exercise.
First, Gillman distributed a set of nine images outlining an unusual story. She introduced some initial vocabulary words: Bed. Mattress. Husband. Wife.
The husband and wife were having trouble sleeping. At first, it wasn’t clear why. At the finale, two dramatic vocab words—knife! snake!—identified what was going on: a serpent had been slithering around in their mattress.
“True story,” Gillman told the group.
Cotrina worked with a friend, Veronica Benicio, both of Fair Haven, to copy down notes from the story. They giggled over the sounds of the new words.
“Both,” Gillman directed, pursing lips together as she began. “B” as in “baby.”
“Both!” Benicio repeated, releasing the air forcefully as if hurling the word at her friend. They broke out in laughter.
“Ssssnaaaaaayk,” she hissed.
“Bed,” she said.
Throughout the lesson, students slipped into Spanish to translate new words and explain to each other what was going on. Gillman reminded them to speak in English.
Gladis Hernandez (at center in photo) grinned broadly, steeled herself, and switched back to English at her teacher’s prompting. She said she has lived in the U.S. for 15 and has not learned much English. Now her son is learning English at Fair Haven, and she is determined to, too.
Gillman encouraged her students to show off their new words at home.
She wrote the word “homework” on her white board.
“When you go home, you have two songs to teach your children, and one story to tell your children,” she directed her pupils.
Benicio pronounced the class “very, very, very good.”
Then she headed out with her pals Anamaria Urcid (at center) and Cotrina (at right).
The class runs on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. for 10 weeks, according to Luz Betancur (pictured), director of the Family Resource Center. The center, one of five across the city, opened in February with the help of a state grant. In the past, the center has been offering child care, after-school programs, Zumba, and parenting classes; Wednesday was the first time it branched out into offering English classes.
Gethings said she was impressed by the “unexpectedly big turnout.”
Next week, she said, “we’ll move it to the library” to accommodate the crowd.
Past Independent stories on Fair Haven School: