Education

Breaking the language barriers

Making her way from the tropics of the Dominican Republic to New York’s cold concrete jungle, this is the story of Arlette Espaillat, an 8-year-old girl who has to deal head-on with New York’s complex education system.
7 Sep 2016 – 11:25 AM EDT




A Zoo of Her Own: The beginning of the adventure

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Eight-year-old Arlette Espaillat loves posing for the camera, but she wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up. The fourth grader from Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic goes to school in the Bronx, in New York City, and is struggling to adapt to the complex education system in the United States, while she tries to improve her reading skills and fight homesickness.


Espaillat grew up between the city of Santiago and the village of Gurabito, a small settlement near Monción, which I visited. That’s where her maternal grandmother lives, and where she practically has her own private petting zoo, playing with chickens, dogs and cows. In this place, which appears frozen in time, I witnessed the close relationship she has with her family and how animals fascinate her.


This time, Espaillat was there just on vacation. Some time ago her parents, Clotilde Almonte and Juan Andrés Espaillat, decided to seek the “American Dream,” trading the countryside for skyscrapers and a cramped apartment in the Bronx.

Feeling certain that she had made the right decision, Almonte told me that her husband had been the first one to move to the U.S. and she followed him some years later to keep the family together. Both want to make a living and a better education for their daughter, who until two years ago was studying at Centro Educativo Paspland, a semi-public school in Santiago with the charm of a schoolhouse where everyone knows one another.

Its principal, Zobeida Castillo, spoke wonders about Espaillat, and said the school was making a great effort to educate students while dealing with violence and poverty endured by some of the students. The DR lags in terms of educational performance: a 2013 UNESCO evaluation conducted in 15 Latin American countries revealed that the average reading level for Dominican students falls below the regional level.


Almonte admits that her daughter’s reading level was below her grade level when she started school in New York City. She hopes tutorials will help her improve, perhaps with games and songs.

Meanwhile, Espaillat is trying to make friends in her neighborhood, and practices English with one of her friends. The language has caused frustration and headaches for her as well as her parents. How is Espaillat overcoming this obstacle that millions of Hispanics struggle with, too?

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Dreaming in Spanish, Speaking in English

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Gone are those vacations in the Dominican Republic, and with them, at least for now, no more walks in the countryside and big family gatherings. Today, fourth grader Arlette Espaillat’s life spins around a small public school in The Bronx, in New York City, where I was able to witness her interaction with teachers and classroom mates.

The moment you arrive you realize that the school’s staff, from the director down, struggles to help the school get ahead. Arlette’s classroom is on the fifth floor and has no elevator or air conditioning. This is late summer and it is very hot, but that doesn’t stop teachers and students from focusing on and enjoying their classes.


This is a bilingual school. One day subjects are taught in English, another day in Spanish. Arlette says she has more fun with the latest. After two years living in the States, she says she still thinks in Spanish and she finds difficult to pronounce some words in English, but after hearing her speak for a little while; it seems to me that she is in good shape. I wanted to see her score on tests that measure her English level, but her teacher said she didn’t have them yet.

Students such as Arlette are identified as ELL (English Language Learners), and, according to the Department of Education, there are approximately four million students like her enrolled in U.S. public schools. The problem is that, according to federal figures, these students have underperformed against those who speak English as a mother tongue; and high school graduation rate in the 2013-2014 school year was 20% below the national average.

Arlette’s teacher told me that she believes one of the biggest obstacles for these students is that many of them have deficiencies in their own language and do not have adequate preparation to learn a second language. These results underline the great importance and responsibility of bilingual schools.


The day we visited her school, Arlette was having her 9 th birthday. So the day was out of the ordinary. Her mother, Clotilde Almonte, wanted to celebrate bringing a cake and juice for everyone in the classroom, which caused a lot of excitement in the child and her peers, as they all had a lot of fun. During the small party I realized there were no white children in the classroom. Most of them looked Hispanic. The obvious question is whether these children are being racially segregated by the system.

Next time we will talk to specialists on this subject, which at first glance doesn’t seem to be an inconvenience, but according to several researchers it can increase the disparity in the students’ academic performance. Among other things, because teachers in racially segregated schools would have less experience, they would benefit from less advanced courses and facilities where they work would not be the most appropriate.

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It’s grade-report time

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End-of year festivities are beginning, bringing celebrations with family, friends and classmates. For Arlette, and for the other students, it’s also the scary time of receiving their grades. And I had the opportunity to attend the parent-teacher meeting where grades were reported.

Her facial expression was a poem. With characteristic sweetness, she heard good and bad news. Her teacher said that she was a very sociable, enterprising girl, and was striving to get ahead, but that she still needed to improve her score in such important subjects for fourth grade as Reading and Mathematics.


Arlette kiddingly said she thought she would have a better grade in Art. But she didn’t. Clotilde, her Mother, hugged her with typical motherly complicity to assure her that it would be all right, and immediately asked how she could help Arlette improve her standing. Teacher Gloria Zelasco told her that an extracurricular program was about to begin, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, that might be quite helpful. She also offered to show some teaching techniques to Clotilde.

Unfortunately, figures from the New York City Department of Education show that student achievement at the public school where Arlette studies is only fair. According to a report by the University of California at Los Angeles, public schools in New York are among the country’s most segregated, and Arlette’s is no exception: Only 1% of the school’s students are white.

According to University of New York psychologist and professor Gigliana Melzi, racial segregation and socio-economic segregation go together, and students can be harmed by lower academic performance due to low-quality education or a scarcity of options they can afford.


The City-data website shows that the average income in the Bronx, where the school is located, is just over 30,000 dollars a year, making it one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

The School’s principal, Vivian Bueno, is aware of the problems they face, and says it is essential to keep a positive attitude toward adversity, and think about the future. Part of her plan to turn her school’s harsh reality around is partnering with universities, so the children – and even their parents – are motivated to continue on to higher studies.

Shortly ago, the New York Department of Education revealed that their efforts to address the phenomenon of poverty and segregation is to expand a program to 19 schools that enables them to reserve seats for low-income students who are learning English, or who have a parent in prison. Critics feel this is not sufficient. For the time being, Arlette will have to stay at her school in the Bronx.

Soon I will see how she celebrates her December holidays and will explore the importance of her mother’s backstopping in her struggle to upgrade her English and get better grades.

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The price of spending Christmas with the family

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Arlette is back in her beloved Dominican Republic for the December holidays. The little girl adapted to the heat, palm trees and hot sun in no time, as Quisqueya heats back up after the short cloudbursts that are typical of this season.

Arlette’s parents decided to leave the snow and freezing temperatures of New York City behind and spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with their relatives. Their custom is to hold part of the celebrations out at Arlette’s grandmother’s country home, in the hamlet of Gurabito, very near Monción, just outside Santiago De Los Caballeros. There, I was with their extended family, and saw how closely they live with Nature.

There are plenty of tropical fruit trees, cows, hens, dogs and some bothersome mosquitos, but not enough to put a dent in the place’s charm. The land, its plants and the farm animals all fascinated the little girl, who is playing and probably forgetting that she has assignments to do in order to make up for the at least 10 days of classes that she will have missed when she gets back to school in the Bronx in January.


Missing school around Christmas time is quite common for Hispanic immigrants and some specialists say this could have serious consequences for students, such as weakening their reading skills.

The Department of Education recently disclosed that over six million students missed classes for 15 days or longer during school year 2013-2014, which the DoE says could hamper their schoolwork and their chances to pass the school year.

In Arlette’s case, she is struggling to improve her English and get higher grades in Reading and Mathematics, so this absence could be even more counter-productive.

Clotilde, her Mother, told us she has made this decision consciously, traveling for so long to the Dominican Republic, but also reminding us that the family reunion is important for her daughter’s upbringing. She also added that they have the support of Arlette’s teacher, and they will do whatever they can to help her catch up in school.

This is an uphill battle, considering that, according to experts in this area, doing homework does not fully compensate for missed classroom instruction and interaction with teachers.

National initiatives such as Attendance Works, which promote more regular school attendance, recommend for parents to make it a priority for their children to make it to classes, and asks them to discuss with the school or with community agencies if there is any barrier keeping their kids from making it to school.

In my next post, I will try to tell how Arlette has done to make up for her lost classes, and explore how students like her, who are learning English, get reclassified.

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Giving them your time is not always enough

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Since I met Arlette Espaillat six months ago, I haven’t seen a more devoted mother than hers, Clotilde Almonte. Every time her daughter needs her, Clotilde is there for her, whether at school or a home. This is even more amazing when we realize that most immigrant parents have several jobs. In her case, she is an assistant at an old-folks’ home, and often works on weekends.

Her great willingness and good intentions to help Arlette with her education represent an enormous advantage for her daughter, who intends to go to college and become a pediatrician. Experts are always saying that “an involved parent is a parent who speaks up”, and makes a difference in the student’s life. But just attending meetings at the school is not enough, according to Windy López Aflitto, Content Director of the online “Be a Learning Hero” guide. Parents must also help when their children are doing homework. This means not only just sitting down next to their kids in the afternoons or evenings – but also implementing strategies.

In Clotilde’s case, she studied in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and just over two years ago moved to New York City, so her English is rudimentary. She says the way she learned to read, add, subtract, multiply and divide is quite different from the way Arlette is learning. This makes her very frustrated, and makes it difficult for her to help her daughter with schoolwork.


Fortunately, there is a solution. Having made time to devote to her daughter is her greatest advantage. The rest is to learn some techniques to facilitate her collaboration with Arlette’s assignments.

Precisely for this purpose, López Aflitto assures us that parents’ standard of English, Reading or Mathematics matters less than asking the right questions and making learning fun. An example could be practicing antonyms while preparing supper, asking whether the milk is cold or hot, or reviewing subtraction with the weights of ingredients while cooking.

Some specialists suggest that parents with little English fluency can read to their children in Spanish and ask them to interpret what they read. These experts feel that critical thinking can be developed in any language. Clotilde does this with Arlette, and also signed her up for an after-school program to continue reviewing Reading and Mathematics.

Arlette has not been in the program for long, but she says she enjoys it, even though these extracurricular activities mean leaving school later. With a cute grin, she admits that she loves it when her Mother helps her with her homework. When they don’t understand a word, they look it up together on Internet, and enjoy this time together very much.

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Spring is coming, a time for tests and good news

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This is a time of great happiness for Arlette Espaillat’s family. After over two years sharing an apartment with relatives in the Bronx, New York, they told me that they will soon move to their own home. Clotilde Almonte, Arlette’s Mother, says that they found the perfect place and at an affordable price, in the same neighborhood where they live now.

With a smile, Clotilde told me they will have the privacy and comfort they have longed for, and Arlette is very excited because she has always wanted to have her own room. Those of us who live in New York know how hard it is to find an apartment in the city, and how much harder it is to find one that meets your expectations without emptying your pockets.

Clotilde thinks that this move will be very good for Arlette’s schoolwork because it is harder for her to do her homework or practice her reading where they live now, because there’s not much room. Recently, Arlette’s teacher told her that she had improved her reading, but that it’s not at grade level yet, which is normal for students who are just learning English.

To observe Arlette’s development, I accompanied her to the program she goes to after school and I saw how hard she’s working. She knows that in a month she will take the complicated State “English Language Arts” test, known as the "ELA", to assess her reading comprehension skills.

At the after-school program Arlette also studied Computing and Mathematics, but she is focusing mainly on acquiring a larger vocabulary in English. Her situation is common, according to the National Evaluation of Educational Progress: only 36% of all fourth-grade students in 2015 were reading at a competent level. This is alarming if we take into account that the Annie E. Casey Foundation says that fourth-graders who are good at reading have a better chance of graduating from high school and being economically successful adults.


Yolanda Torres, Executive Superintendent for Community Participation of New York City’s Department of Education, explained to me that fortunately the results of the "ELA" test are not the only thing they consider when deciding if a student passes the school year. She says many other factors come into play, so students like Arlette have a good chance of continuing forward.

There are a number of ways to improve. Teachers recommend children read at home with the help of CDs to connect what they read with the written word. They also suggest practicing with books that are a bit more advanced, to familiarize kids with new vocabulary. Arlette also has a classmate who has offered to help her, giving personalized attention to her and other students.

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What is the difference between “gui” and “güi”?

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Though spring is here, a powerful storm reminded those who live in the northeast that winter is not over yet.

We don’t know yet if nice temperatures will come soon. What we do know is that the exams, aligned with academic standards, better known as the Common Core, will not wait.

In just a few days, Arlette will take the first of them, to assess her reading level. When I asked her what she knew about this test, she said that it will be difficult and more complicated, because she is in fourth grade.


She told me that she got only a fairly good grade last year, so this time she and her mother Clotilde, want to change that. To make it happen, she is attending an after school program and practices her lessons at home.

With a big book, Arlette showed me how she practices reading and learns new phrases. This time, she studied the use of the dieresis in words such as ‘penguin’ ( pingüino).

Her mother, with great patience and dedication, explained to her daughter when to use the dieresis and when it shouldn’t be used. She quickly caught on and in a few minutes the next step was to learn about the animal called the capybara or chigüire.

With Clotilde, I also discussed the polemic standardized tests. She says she doesn’t know why they are given, but she said she believes they are required by the Department of Education.


Standardized tests were created so that every student in the country - no matter what state they live in - will have the same opportunities and knowledge to be well-prepared for the university.

Supporters say the tests are a way to make sure that students have a quality education and that it also gets students studying.

But critics say these tests are not appropriate for students’ individual development and place great pressure on them. Hundreds of thousands of parents around the country have decided not to let their children take the test.


Clotilde is not among them. In their new apartment, which they moved to just a few days ago and she is still getting organized, she told me that she hopes this new home will contribute to Arlette’s educational progress. She expects that her little girl will be able to study more comfortably, now that she has her own room and better lighting.

These tests, which will measure Arlette’s reading and mathematics skills, are scheduled for late March and early May. Her mother says she has a positive attitude about these exams and assures us that her daughter will do well on them, because she is working hard to make that happen.

After studying for a few weeks, there’s nothing better than a well-deserved vacation... This is what Arlette Espaillat is looking forward to after studying past her bedtime (well, she studied up to her bedtime…) to prepare for the English Language Arts exam (ELA).


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Mission "nearly" accomplished

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She tells me that she thinks she did well on the test, because she has good self-confidence, but she adds that she was surprised to encounter many questions on topics that she doesn’t remember having ever studied during the school year.

That is why her mother, Clotilde Almonte, said she was concerned about how the test results may turn out. She thinks that the school ought to give parents more guidance about the content of these tests, so they can help their children study at home.

Her concern brought up a topic that seems to be common among Hispanic parents: the fact that they tend not to question their school principals and other leadership, because they see them as authority figures, or do not feel that school directors are receptive or welcoming.


This is Clotilde’s case. She told me she has never met the principal of Arlette’s school face to face. She admits that she knows little about students’ rights or how to access them, even though she considers herself a mother who is involved in her daughter’s education.

For this reason, we consulted with an organization that advocates for children’s rights, called "Advocates for Children". Their representatives urge parents to ask more questions and, if communication with the principal or Parent Coordinator is not good enough, they ask them to turn to their school district’s superintendent.


According to this advocacy group, parents have the right to ask why their children are not making progress at school and to ask for tutoring free of charge, among other things.

However, rights also entail responsibilities, such as attending committee meetings and PTA meetings, something that Clotilde says she has been unable to do because of her work schedule. Nevertheless, she does try to remain abreast of Arlette’s affairs by speaking with her teacher during the four parent-teacher conferences they hold ever year.

Therefore, Arlette is a happy little girl, because she will get to play during Spring Break. She plans to visit the parks in her neighborhood and go shopping. She excitedly told me that there are some jeans that she has her eyes on, in a shop in Manhattan. She will also have a little party in her new home, with some of her classmates.


But she can’t play all vacation, Arlette told me, a bit frustrated. She will have to do a project on environmental phenomena, specifically simulating a drought with paper and cardstock, plus other materials she will have to buy.

In addition to this homework, her math exam—part of the tests aligned with the academic standards known as the Common Core—is just around the corner, so she will have to practice multiplying, dividing and interpreting story problems, which is one of the things she thinks are the most complicated.

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Slowly but surely

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It’s hard to believe that 10 months have gone by since we began accompanying Arlette Espaillat on her challenge to improve her English and do better in Reading, Mathematics and other subjects.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it has been fun. Little Arlette is sweet and spontaneous. I’ve never seen her discouraged – perhaps tired and sleepy after several hours of classes, but never sad. Her mother, Clotilde seems to have a lot to do with that positive attitude, constantly encouraging her to keep striving and – when she has to guide her daughter – she doesn’t hesitate.

I recently attended a meeting with both of them and Arlette’s teacher, Gloria Zelasco. Arlette was nervous, because she didn’t know what her teacher was going to say about her academic progress.

Fortunately, Gloria began by congratulating Arlette’s mother. She told her that she can be happy with the progress that her girl has been making this school year. The teacher says Arlette has improved her reading and is now at an ‘M’ level, which – according to the guided reading tables – is how students should be reading at the end of second grade.

Although Arlette is finishing fourth grade, and her teacher admits that she has not yet caught up with most of her classmates, she acknowledges her student’s effort, because just a few months ago, she was reading at first-grade level.

Arlette, who is Dominican, has been in New York City for less than three years, so her academic English also has to improve. However, the teacher clarified that Arlette’s reading in Spanish is not much better than in English, and suggested Clotilde continue reading to her in the two languages.

During the conversation, Clotilde said she was worried about her daughter’s achievement in Mathematics and it turned out she was right. The teacher said that this was the subject that Arlette should work on the most, because she still needs to master basic addition and multiplication. She recommended some programs that Arlette can practice with on her tablet, and also suggested she go to summer school.

After the meeting, Arlette and her mother looked satisfied, and said they were happy with what she has achieved. Arlette had a big smile, and admitted she felt relieved, because she was afraid that the results of her evaluation would be negative.

We aren’t sure yet whether she will go on to fifth grade. The teacher said that they will find out the last day of class, in late June, after evaluating – among other things – the test results aligned with the academic standards better known as the Common Core, which she recently took.

Affectionately, Clotilde told Arlette that she hopes her daughter will pass to the next grade, and reminded her how much summer school helped her before, and that’s why she will take summer school again this year. Arlette grumbles, saying that having classes in July means no vacation.

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Summer brings more than a break

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The end of the school year has come, and now Arlette can go out and play outdoors, which she has been looking forward to all year. She almost forgets that her mother warned her that it will not be all fun and games, because she will also go to summer school.

This decision does not exactly thrill her. She told me that it doesn’t feel like a break if she has to go to school in July and August, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. However, her mother, Clotilde, has affectionately insisted that she wants her daughter to practice what she learned during the school year, because she wouldn’t like for her to fall back in the progress she has made in reading and math.

Just to show how much progress she has made, Arlette received two prizes from the school, which she proudly showed me. One was for an outstanding presentation she made about droughts as a meteorological phenomenon, and the other was for a project on using electrical energy in the home. In a few days, she should turn in an additional assignment, in which she has to retell the story of a book about some children who visit the Amazon and get attacked by a caiman. Clotilde showed me the supplies they bought for this project, and it looks like it is going to turn out very nicely.

As part of the end of the school year, her school has also organized activities outside school, which Arlette is enjoying. Recently, she went fishing with her classmates – even though it was a chilly, rainy day, she obviously had a great time. She told me that they fished as a two-person team, with one holding the fishing pole and the other putting the bait on the hook, but apparently no fish were biting.

Such outings remind me of the suggestion by the representative of the " Be a Learning Hero" organization, Windy López-Aflitto, to prevent the so-called " Summer Slide", when students can forget some of their learning over the summer. The teacher says that learning over vacation should be fun, so the kids don’t feel like they are doing schoolwork. She recommends for parents to read with their children, to find free programs in their community, and visit libraries or museums.

She also advises practicing math with ingredients while cooking, which works great for Clotilde and Arlette because she loves to help her mother fix meals.

Arlette also loves to ride her bicycle. She will combine this favorite pastime after the last day of classes, June 28, combining bicycling with getting to summer school classes. She is quite well acquainted with this program, because she attended summer school last year, too, and her mother says it improved her English and academic achievement.

Now, in the final stretch of the school year, Arlette’s greatest concern is to know whether she will pass the year and get into fifth grade. Her teacher, Gloria Zelasco, tells us that she will give students that information at their farewell party at the end of the school year. We’ll stay tuned for the results…

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Goodbye school year, hello summer school


I was there with Arlette on her last day of class. She couldn’t be happier about finishing the school year. Her classmates were also very excited. The idea of having more time to go out, play under the sun or with their electronic toys seemed very promising.

As in each step of her daughter’s education, Clotilde went to the school to get Arlette’s score card and to support her during the celebration. Hugs between them were flowing back and forth.

Clotilde also had the chance to talk with her daughter’s teacher, Gloria Zelasco, who gave her the news that Arlette did not pass to fifth grade because she did not meet this year’s standards. She suggested she go to summer school as a possible solution to improve her academic performance and she said that depending on that result, together with the hard work she put in during the school year, she could be promoted.

With the positive attitude that characterizes her, Clotilde says she is sure Arlette will go on to fifth grade. She and Arlette’s teacher have concluded that she does better when she studies in small groups like the ones during summer school. Meanwhile, Arlette doesn’t seem worried, but she did admit that she would be very sad if she had to do fourth grade over and not go on with her classmates.

This little girl has gone a long way since she left Santiago, Dominican Republic n her way to New York City less than three years ago. Back then she didn’t know any English or the US school system. Today she can say she has taken giant steps in reading. When she first entered the city’s public school system she was several levels below her grade level and today she is on the same level as her class.


She has also received several awards for doing outstanding work on projects, as she did for science class. Her work in social studies was also recognized a few days ago with a diploma that was given to her in a beautiful ceremony in front of her classmates. According to her teacher, her biggest challenge is still math, because she doesn’t have a strong enough grasp of basic four-digit operations and the grades she got reflect those difficulties.

Summer school is a chance to keep progressing and overcoming these obstacles. As it’s common, it will last a little more than a month and by august 28 th we will know if she was able to advance enough to be promoted to 5th grade. With a little bit of individualized attention, I know that she can make it.


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