Building Bridges Between Cultures In East Hampton Schools
By Ana Núñez ’11
Ana Núñez ’11 was featured in a June 10 article in The New York Times discussing her role as a liaison with the East Hampton (N.Y.) School District, working to facilitate communication between the district’s administrators and teachers and Spanish-speaking families. Núñez herself attended schools in East Hampton after moving to the United States from Ecuador as a fifth-grader. Here, she reflects on her own transition, the challenges of being an international student and how her experiences learning to navigate American schools are helping her now.
I was 3 when my mother left my sister and me in Ecuador, in search of better work and opportunities in the United States. We were left with grandparents, aunts and uncles, who played the role of diligent parents. My mother was physically absent for six long years; however, during that time she was financially present, providing us with the best education and fulfilling our needs. Little did I know back then that everything we had was thanks to 20-hour shifts she was working in a cosmetics factory in New Jersey.
In 1999 my mother visited Ecuador for the first time since being away. I remember I was very excited to welcome her in the airport, although the visit turned out not as pleasant as I imagined, as she was essentially a stranger to me. Two months later, my sister and I moved to East Hampton, N.Y., to live with her. The first two years were miserable. I was thrown into an unknown environment where the only person I knew was my sister, who was going through her teenage years; I was in the fifth grade. Classes were taught in English and the majority of the students were American. There were about eight other kids who were learning English, including one who had recently arrived to the country like me. In addition, classes were taught differently than in Ecuador, with students switching classrooms for different classes.
The routine surrounding my schoolwork also changed drastically. In Ecuador, elementary school education is very demanding, and my aunt, who was my school guardian, would not allow me to obtain grades below a 19 (90s in the U.S.). I would get home, switch out of my uniform, have lunch and do homework. My aunt would check it all and if there were no mistakes I was allowed to play with kids from my neighborhood. To prepare for exams, I would study after finishing my homework and my aunt would verbally test me on the material — then send me back to study more if I made mistakes. Sometimes this process took hours and caused many tears. In addition, my aunt would test me in the morning before school while doing my hair or having breakfast. This was tedious and time-consuming, but it prepared me well.
In East Hampton, my routine was very different. I would arrive home by bus, have something to eat and hang around. It was up to me whether I did my schoolwork properly and on time. At first, my mother tried to check on my homework and mirror my aunt’s support, but it was hard for her to be on top of it because of the language barrier, the difference in the educational systems and time constraints due to her work. That is when I replaced my aunt’s academic regimen with my own initiative. I struggled at the beginning but soon became aware of resources at the school such as homework club and extra help, resources not common in Ecuador. After a while, I realized I was most comfortable when I was in school. I learned the language in two years and was able to enroll in advanced classes for the rest of my education.
By the time I got to high school things were smoother. I was lucky to be surrounded by classmates who were on the college track and advised by knowledgeable parents. The entire college process was foreign to me: In Ecuador, typically you take an entrance exam for the college you want to attend (there are limited choices) and then if you pass the test, you enroll — that’s all. There are no such things as extracurricular activities, community service, SATs and so on. Here, I became aware of what I should be doing and how to prepare thanks to conversations in the classroom. I mirrored my classmates’ trajectories, building up a resume and registering for all necessary tests for a competitive school. My mother’s role in my education was limited to reviewing my report card and signing checks for standardized tests.
Columbia was the second college I visited, and the minute I got there, I knew I wanted to attend. My mother was hesitant because of the cost, but I wanted to risk it. Luckily Columbia provided me with a generous financial aid package, and I also received a Gates Millennium Scholarship. In addition, I held small jobs throughout the school year and during the summer.
Columbia and the college system were overwhelming at first.
I felt like a foreigner while discovering and understanding how everything worked. In addition, surprisingly, the English language became an obstacle again, as I felt that my proficiency was not enough for me to keep pace with the academics. However, I learned to use support services, such as the Writing Center, which helped me improve my weaknesses. At the same time, I felt welcomed by the Columbia community because of its diversity, and I no longer had to be “careful” with my accent. Ultimately I grew academically, overcame obstacles and made the Dean’s List.
I would have never imagined that all these experiences would uniquely prepare me for my role, beginning last November, as a conduit between the East Hampton School District and its growing number of Spanish-speaking families. Based on the New York State Report Card for 2011–12, the percentage of Hispanic or Latino students in the district is 41, while the largest racial/ethnic group is white, at 51. I was hired to improve communication and thus facilitate broader access to district resources that are underused due to the lang-uage barrier and to create the opportunity for the meaningful participation of parents in promoting the academic growth of their children.
To accomplish this, I organized parent meetings throughout the district to help them understand the school system. For example, at the high school level there was a meeting that explained the graduation requirements, Regents exams, report cards and more. Parents also had a chance to meet their kids’ guidance counselors. In addition, workshops were created to teach parents how to use online tools to check their kids’ grades, attendance and so on. At the elementary level, parents were informed about the importance of reading and learned about common community resources such as library programs and town recreational activities.
Parent participation was an obstacle at the beginning, when only 18 showed up for a meeting I had called of all Spanish-speaking families of high school students. However, these 18 parents helped me better understand their needs and concerns, which helped me to plan meetings and programs for the rest of the academic year. For the second meeting I called all Spanish-speaking parents ahead of time to inform them about the subjects that were going to be explained; I also advertised the meeting with flyers at markets and frequently visited places around the community, and I contacted the single Spanish radio station in the area. The number of parents who attended meetings grew from there, reaching as many as 170, so that we ultimately had to break down meetings by grade level to allow for more meaningful participation.
Based on my own experiences as a high school and college student, and my mother’s experience, I have been able to identify and tackle specific concerns and obstacles that many Spanish-speaking families face in our school district. For example, I encountered one recently arrived student who didn’t know whether to take a bilingual social studies class in which she might more easily obtain a high grade or take a regular social studies class taught in English that might be more challenging and put her grade at risk. However, when she learned about the available support such as extra help, she went ahead with the all-English class. For her and for many other recently arrived students, it was all about being aware of the available support services and using them productively.
The response from Spanish-speaking families in East Hampton has been outstanding. I have learned that many families had been seeking to become more involved in their children’s education but were limited because of the language barrier and cultural differences. It brings to mind my mother’s experience when she tried to become involved in the school to provide us with the necessary support. I remember she attended PTA meetings and such but was discouraged due to language and cultural differences. Parents like her who seek involvement or are intimidated by the school are now learning about available resources and can comfortably become engaged and take a more active role in the school and their children’s education.
I certainly learned a lot in my first year, and throughout this past summer I worked with administrators and school staff to reflect on last year and to develop a road map for this year. We will continue trying to increase communication with parents through meetings and to encourage their participation. With the support of school personnel we have planned school events, such as parent-teacher conferences and college information sessions, to accommodate Spanish-speaking families. I am optimistic that our school community will continue to provide our students with more opportunities to excel regardless of their background.