This past summer, I learned from Wagner’s education department chair, Karen DeMoss, about the innovative ways that graduate education programs are intertwined with the Port Richmond Partnership, the community collaboration of Wagner College and the non-profits and schools of this extremely diverse and economically struggling Staten Island community.
So when I had the chance to see one of these programs in action, I jumped at it.
Every week, Professors Katia Gonzalez and Rhoda Frumkin and their graduate students in early childhood education and literacy meet at PS 20, an elementary school in Port Richmond. The rest of their coursework — readings, lectures, discussions — is conducted online; here is where they meet to put theory into practice.
At this school of just over 500 students, 75 percent are Hispanic, and 32 percent are English language learners — setting up clear challenges for their teachers. Add to that scenario that even if the children speak fluent English, many of their parents do not, and therefore have great difficulty helping their kids with their schoolwork.
Every weekday, Wagner students are at this school, offering a before-school breakfast club and after-school tutoring. But Gonzalez and Frumkin’s weekly program, focused on literacy for second graders, involves not only the children but their parents as well.
Moms like Teresa Guzman. A native of Mexico City, Teresa received only a first-grade education in her native country — and she has a son, Diego, in the second grade in the US. (He is the youngest of five boys.) While Diego works through a reading exercise with a classmate and two Wagner graduate students, his mother is learning both English and teaching strategies from Katia and Rhoda. (Everyone’s on a first name basis here.)
The two professors emphasize that this work is not an intervention, but a collaboration. “There are things these parents are doing at home that help kids’ literacy. We are just building on the strategies they are already using to encourage additional growth,” says Katia. “Everyone in the room has something valuable to share, and we try to bring it out by focusing specifically on the cultural background, values, and traditions of all of the participants.”
As the children pair off with Wagner graduate students for tutoring, the mothers gather at a table together with Katia and Rhoda. It’s clear that they all enjoy each others’ company as I pass by and notice that the table is covered with … shoes.
Since everyone has placed one of her shoes on the table, mine is demanded of me as well. In English, they propose different ways to describe and group the shoes: by color, by style, by age. They also do a writing exercise.
With the help of bilingual Katia, Teresa tells me that she loves this program because of the individualized help her son receives, but also because she loves to learn. She’s learning English and educational techniques that allow her to help her son, she says, with a smile.
One of the graduate students working with Diego today is John Gazerwitz M’15. “It’s great, because we are taking what we are reading in the text and what we talked about in the first few weeks of class and actually putting into practice,” he says of the PS 20 experience. “I think myself and the rest of the Wagner students are learning just as much from being there as the students and parents who are part of the program.”
— Laura Barlament | Editor, Wagner Magazine | October 27, 2014
Photos by Anna Mulé