In a school with a growing immigrant population, with new students frequently not knowing a word of English, by any measure, the Springs School’s English as a New Language program is an amazing success. One does not have to look any further than East Hampton High School, where this year’s valedictorian and salutatorian were both products of the program, Springs School Principal Eric Casale said. Both are headed to Ivy League schools.
Alexander Nick Sigua Pintado, the valedictorian, is off to Harvard University with a full scholarship, while Jonathan Gomez Barrientos, the salutatorian, is headed to Cornell. Casale recently sat down with The Independent, along with Margaret Garsetti, who heads the program for the school, which educates children in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Garsetti, an elementary school teacher, has been at the Springs School for about 20 years. She has witnessed the growth of a mostly Latino immigrant population in the school. When she started at Springs, she said, the immigrant student population was under 10 percent of the total enrollment. Now, it is at 60 percent. Meanwhile, the entire student population has grown from around 400, to about 725.
She was encouraged, when she first joined the school, by then-Superintendent Dominic Mucci, to pursue a degree in teaching students of other languages, “So I drove three nights a week to Adelphi,” she said.
She explained the approach the school takes for students who come in lacking English language skills. “The first thing that we do is bring them into an environment that is very safe. We want them to know that they are safe and we want them to know that they are very welcomed, that we are happy that they are here.” There are many ways to accomplish this, she said, including through the school’s “buddy system.” Fellow students who have experienced the process of English as a Second Language, the former title of the ENL program, take the new students under their wing.
But even before children start classes, the school is proactive. “That begins, even at the point of intake. When they register, a social worker helps them through the process, and actually becomes a liaison for them for the first couple of weeks of school,” Casale said. The social worker helps the family adjust, as well. “Any questions that arise, whether it is filling out forms, or getting to know the website, they have a person who speaks their language. The parents and the kids feel welcome at Springs School,” he added.
Casale knows from firsthand experience the difficulty of staring in school not knowing the English language. His parents were Italian immigrants who had settled in Bayside. At home, Italian was all that was spoken. “When I started kindergarten, I knew hello and goodbye,” he said. Now, though he does not describe himself bilingual (he said he speaks “muy poquito Español,”) he can converse with his Spanish-speaking students. He began his career as a principal in the New York City Public School system in the Bronx. After several years, he began exploring positions on Long Island. When he came to Springs, he said, he fell in love with the school and the community.
While helping immigrant children get up to speed with their English, all other classes at Springs School are taught in English. “All instruction is in English. You are teaching them in English,” Garsetti explained.
The amount of schooling the children have had in their native lands is also an issue that Springs School has to deal with. “We have students with interrupted formal education,” Garsetti said, meaning gaps in the years they attended school. In some cases, students arrive “from another country where they have never been to school before . . . or last attended school three years ago,” Casale added.
Garsetti described the recent voyage of one 11-year-old Ecuadoran to Springs, where she rejoined her parents, whom she hadn’t seen for years. The voyage took many months, and several countries, while she was watched over by different groups of adults, all with the same goal: to get her to Springs. It is a modern-day Underground Railroad, she said. Two days after the 11-year-old was reunited with her parents, she was in class at Springs, Garsetti said.
“You hear some of the stories . . . as an adult, you are traumatized. Imagine these children going through this experience,” Casale said. “The first day here, we are teaching them fractions. They are not going to learn fractions if they don’t feel comfortable.”
For many of the students, it takes a few months to get adjusted, said Garsetti. “They are scared. Culture shock. But all of our regular classroom teachers are enormously supportive,” she noted.
Beyond the obvious success of the program as exemplified by the East Hampton High School Class of 2018’s valedictorian and salutatorian, Casale pointed with pride at this year’s state test numbers for students in the program. The state test involves four parts: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. In particular, Casale said, of the 21 kindergarten students in the program, 18 of them were shown to be in the fourth or fifth levels of understanding the English language, according to the state test. Once a student achieves the fifth level, they are deemed English-proficient, and no longer remain in the program. Overall, about 75 percent of the school’s ENL students tested out to be in levels four and five.
The success of the program, both Casale and Garsetti said, is a product of teamwork. “I’m really proud of the hard work done by the classroom teachers, and the ENL teachers. It is a team effort here,” Casale said. Besides Garsetti, the other ENL teachers are Sarah Dunkirk, Kimberly Royal, and Robert Maier. In addition, Casale credited the work of two teacher’s assistants who are involved with the program, Lilliam Flores and Kellie Toto. He called them both “gems.”