“My dad’s cheating on my mom and she told him to get out,” Juan†, a second grader in teacher Maria Diaz’s second grade classroom, says.
Every morning, Diaz asks her students if there’s anything they’d like to discuss; she is often surprised—and pleased—by their revelations. Today is no exception. After Juan’s announcement, other hands shoot up. “Yeah, my dad cheated, too. Now my parents are separated,” one seven-year-old confesses.
Another chimes in: “Your parents will still love you the same no matter what your mom and dad go through.”
“It’s gonna be okay,” pupil Mari-Elena counsels.
Welcome to Primary School 24, the Dual Language School for International Studies, a kindergarten to fifth grade program in Sunset Park. With subway tracks across the street, McDonald’s, Burger King, or take-out joints on every corner, and Flat Fix shops lining 4th Avenue, the boisterous, heavily-trafficked spot is an unlikely place for a community oasis.
Unlikely or not, the school is a home-away-from-home for 836 kids, 129 of them in Special Ed. In addition to Monday through Friday classes, a Saturday program offers free Spanish literacy and ESL instruction to parents, and tutorial help to students in danger of falling behind. An on-site health clinic run by Lutheran Medical Center attends to students’ physical and mental health; social workers, counselors, and speech and physical therapists also help the children flourish.
Nearly half of those enrolled are learning English. Most emigrated from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Ecuador, and almost all are low income; 90% receive free lunches.
While these socio-economic markers might cause chaos in other schools, PS 24 is calm. The corridors are brightly lit and the walls are covered with colorful artwork. Teachers don’t scream in the hallways and the lunchroom is loud, but mannerly. Student monitors, dubbed Peacemakers, are on hand to resolve conflicts as they arise, using resolution techniques developed by Educators for Social Responsibility.
“We see peace education as being critical,” says principal Christina Fuentes. “It’s part of attending to social and emotional needs. Students need to feel good about themselves to learn. If we want them to be risk-takers intellectually, we need to help them feel safe in school and at home. The more we attend to emotional needs, the fewer discipline problems we’ll have. This is not only the right thing to do morally, it’s a strategy to get kids to achieve academically.”
Every classroom has a Peace Corner where students can chill out when they are upset, whether about a classroom problem or trouble at home. Individual Feelings Notebooks allow students to write about whatever is bothering them. Sometimes, an in-class Peacemaker will offer his or her services to those in the Corner, but Peacemakers have been trained not to push; when they intervene, it is with suggestions, not mandates.
The Peace Corner in Maria Diaz’s second grade classroom includes mobiles dangling vocabulary words like jolly, elated, chirpy, content, jubilant, cheerless, doleful, gloomy, and blue. This class’s notebook entries use these words to reveal feelings: I feel gloomy when my grandma go’s to Florida; I feel chirpy because they cut my hair and it is short and my aunt and grandma they said it looks nice; I feel blue because my sister and brother call me names like pig or skunk or stinky or tiny or little cry-baby.
“It’s about self-awareness, how you take leadership when someone feels hurt,” assistant principal Mariana Gaston says. “How do you help someone heal so they don’t feel victimized? We train our students to be assertive. You stand up for yourself and for other people so that the community will listen.”
Gaston calls it “constructive engagement.” But PS 24 doesn’t only focus on interpersonal skills. In addition to the three R’s, social issues are an everyday part of the school’s curriculum. A unit on HIV/AIDS in Rachel Benoff’s third grade class led to a one-day bake and soft-drink sale benefiting a local service group. The take, $178.55, exceeded expectations and the students were visibly elated.
“If I was old and had HIV or AIDS, I’d be glad if people helped me so I could go to the doctor,” says Janeth.
“Some homeless people have HIV,” says Enrique. “I want to give them money for something to eat.”
“Everyone should have a happy life and be treated nicely,” says Jennifer.
Martin Alvarado’s fifth grade class is studying a range of temas social, and is presently focusing on enfermidades born of poor nutrition. La obesidad, obesity, is highlighted. Like 20 of the school’s 41 classrooms, Alvarado’s functions as a dual language laboratory, with half the day en Espanol and the other half in English. The students move seamlessly between the two, but it is up to parents to decide if they want their child to be in a dual or single-language classroom.
“Usually, bilingual ed uses the idea that the student will transition out of their first language into English,” says Fuentes. “Ours is an additive model. We help children become strong in their first language, and then transfer those strengths to English so that our students are bi-literate, with a sophisticated grasp of both languages.”
Next year, Fuentes adds, NYC will have 75 dual language schools throughout the City offering instruction in Chinese, Creole, French, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.
In both mono-and-dual language classes, parental involvement is essential, but parent coordinator Tamara Estrella admits that getting families involved is a challenge. “A lot of immigrant parents think that the fact that their children are getting an education is enough,” she says. Legal status is also a factor. “They are often scared. The Department of Education wants to know the income of every family to see who’s eligible for free lunches. The form asks for a Social Security number. It was really hard to get the forms back because even if the child is entitled, the parents are afraid to fill them out. By law, the Board of Ed can’t disclose information to Immigration but the fear is there. Still, we do have an active PTA and families come to programs we run. One, Peace in the Family, talks about ways to deal with children.”
Gloria Jaramillo is the school’s guidance counselor and, like Estrella, offers solace, advice, and referrals to students and their families. “The kids often come to me to talk about relationships. There’s a lot of pressure. Who likes who? Who is my friend today? Who will be my friend tomorrow? Some families are economically strained and the student may not be able to wear what the others wear. The kids make fun of them so we constantly have to do sensitivity awareness.”
PAZ—Peace from A-Z—an after-school program for 350 PS 24 students, hones in on this awareness. On a balmy day in early April, fourth graders perform a skit in which a laptop is taken from a “weird” classmate.
“Why you talking to her for?” Victoria asks. “She always carries that Notebook and she always wears dresses.”
Victoria hears of Arecelli’s plan to steal the computer and considers joining her.
“Come on, Victoria, we need to do this,” Arecelli pushes. “Don’t be a baby.”
Victoria’s confusion—what does it mean to tolerate someone who is different? What is peer pressure? What power do bullies exert?—segues into a spirited post-skit discussion.
“My sister was in a gang in middle school,” one student says. “She went to jail.” While specifics are avoided, the story resonates, and an honest conversation about bullying begins.
Still, despite PS 24’s best efforts, peace is often illusive. “Some of our families tell their kids that if someone bothers them, hit back,” says Fuentes. “This is not our idea of how you respond to conflict. We have to work with parents to have them consider alternatives at home and on the streets.”
This message hit home—literally—one morning when a child in Nydia Mendez’s first-grade classroom came in sobbing. “Mommy was in a hurry and she pushed me,” the student told her. “This girl was heartbroken. In school we talk things out to dissolve problems, but then a parent goes and hits a child. We have to teach that adults don’t always do the right thing. That afternoon, we had a discussion of situations that make us sad.”
Ultimately, Mendez says, teaching peace requires a school-parent partnership. “We have to get parents to buy into what we do. Otherwise, the kids question us: ‘You say all this stuff here, but at home it’s different.’ Parents have to be accountable. I don’t care what the issue is. It’s not acceptable to beat your child or other family members. That’s why we talk so much about feelings. Why lose it? Why not learn to deal with feelings at a young age so you can manage your anger?”
Although staff admits that theirs is an uphill battle, a spirit of joy permeates PS 24. Not surprisingly, the school is at 105.8 percent capacity.
“It makes my heart smile to hear the little ones say, ‘we’re going to mediate our problems,’” says counselor Gloria Jaramillo. “We can solve differences in a peaceful manner.”
† The children’s names have been changed for privacy.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader