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To better understand their Puerto Rican students, Philly teachers travel to Caribbean

By Jesenia De Moya Correa From The Inquirer

It’s Tuesday morning math class for seventh graders at Julia de Burgos Elementary School in North Philadelphia. They’ve been working with scientific calculators.

“We are working on Page 16 now. En la página 16,” teacher Andrew Guyon says — in Spanish and English — to the group of about 30, while ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher Olger Durán, who’s Costa Rican, helps predominantly Spanish-speaking students solve a problem.

One Philly family’s struggles to help relatives in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico
At the end of the lesson, Guyon rewards students’ success with a ticket to a high school fair.

For Guyon, the class isn’t only about numbers, problem-solving, and being accessible in two languages. It’s also about connecting with students in ways to help them learn.

That’s why he and three fellow teachers, funded by a professional grant, traveled to the Caribbean in July to study the culture and “real world situations” in their students’ homelands.

“I wanted to find things that my students could relate to,” Guyon said. “A lot of the math problems in the textbooks are related to golf, and they can’t relate to that.”
Julia de Burgos’ student population has become more Caribbean since Hurricanes Irma and María devastated Puerto Rico last year. Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. About 40 displaced children in elementary and middle schools enrolled for the academic year after the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season ended.

But the school’s principal, Maritza Hernández, said the teachers’ initiative also supports children who were born to Caribbean parents in Philadelphia’s Fairhill and

Kensington neighborhoods. For the current school year, Julia de Burgos has 920 students enrolled from kindergarten to eighth grade — at least 80 percent with a Puerto Rican background, followed by Dominicans.

“Understanding the culture, seeing what’s going on in Puerto Rico and in Santo Domingo, has made [teachers] more empathetic with their students,” Hernández said.

She added that the trip benefited other teachers through a video presentation the travelers shared at a staff meeting at the beginning of the school year.

In January, the four teachers received a $10,000 grant from the Texas-based nonprofit Fund for Teachers that supported a 10-day trip to interview teachers, academic experts, and museum researchers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and in various locations in Puerto Rico: Fajardo, Culebra, El Yunque, Las Carolinas, and San Juan.

They walked around the towns, documented some of the hurricanes’ impact, spoke with families — and even tried to meet with students who had returned to the island.

English teacher Sarah Dueñas noticed that students and families there have a different perception of a teacher’s role and that the approach could determine a child’s recovery from trauma.

“Dealing with trauma in Philadelphia can be related to violence, but not necessarily to a natural disaster,” Dueñas said. “The trip can show my kids that I care enough that I am willing to go to where they are from.”

She noted how the vibrant colors and artistic scenes painted on street walls of both Caribbean countries differed from the pale brick of their Philadelphia school.

Philadelphia public schools had registered 206 displaced students by December 2017, according to district data. As of Jan. 30, 2018, according to a research paper published by the Center for Puerto Rican studies at CUNY’s Hunter College, 414 displaced students were enrolled in Philadelphia — ranking second in Pennsylvania for the number of displaced Puerto Rican school-age children. First was Lehigh County with 481 students. Berks County, with 367, ranked third.

Lee Whack, deputy chief of communications for the Philadelphia School District, wasn’t aware that the Julia de Burgos teachers had made the trip.

“Any time you have a teacher seeing firsthand the ways that he or she can deal with his or her student’s care for trauma, homelessness, violence, or not having food to eat, gives them the cultural competency to be helpful when teaching their students how to learn,” he said.

Whack wasn’t sure whether the School District would continue to count students displaced by the hurricane. Principal Hernández, Puerto Rican herself, said it’s difficult to keep track of the students this year because they “come and go” between the mainland and the island. In addition, it’s a cultural tradition that Dominican and Puerto Rican students tend to attend classes starting three weeks after the official beginning because of the educational systems in their homelands.

In August, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced new federal assistance for 20 states and territories under the Temporary Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Students, with an allocation of almost $14 million to Pennsylvania. Puerto Rico itself is not on the list.

Social studies teacher Christy Halcom brought back an archive of books about the migration that islanders make to North America and the poetry of Julia de Burgos, a 20th century writer and civil rights activist.

“In Puerto Rico, everyone knows who Julia de Burgos is,” Halcom said. “And that’s the name of our school, but we don’t really teach about her, so I want to push and close this gap now.”

Since taking the trip, science teacher Stephen Bolognone has made a point of including in his lessons the pictures of ferns and corals he took in Puerto Rico, in the hope that students will better relate to images from their homeland.

“These kids are not used to American-style educations and now they have been thrust into it. Seeing into the future, this can help them feel at home,” he said.

Hernández looks forward to bridging the cultural and educational gaps that students in the United States encounter when disconnected from their homeland’s and parents’ heritage.

But to get there, she said, her teachers need to be able to develop relationships with the students.

“I can teach them how to teach, but I can’t teach them how to relate,” Hernández said. “I need them to have that.”


Stephen Bolognone teaches science at Julia de Burgos school in Fairhill.

Seventh-grade social studies teacher Christy Halcom wants students to learn about Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, for whom their school is named.JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Sarah Dueñas teaches eighth grade at Julia de Burgos.

Julio de Burgos principal Maritza Hernández.

Andrew Guyon teaches seventh graders at the Julia de Burgos School in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia. Faculty members decided to change their educational programs after making a trip to the Caribbean, as most of their students came from that region.

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