It has been a challenging week. Oh what the heck, it has been a pretty challenging school year.
It is hard to give a quick summary of the things we have faced at school.
I have kept “publicly” quiet about it.
I don’t know why – Diplomacy? I don’t like to complain? Why bother talking when there isn’t anything that I can actually do about it?
But the thing is, I was complaining, A LOT! To my Prince, to my kids, to just about anyone who would give me a minute of their time. And I got sick of hearing my own voice. The negative me is not a pleasant person to be around. In an effort to improve my quality of life and that of those around me, I shut up. I gave up complaining for Lent.
The thing is, the stuff didn’t stop happening.
And I didn’t stop being bothered.
So I did stuff.
I scheduled meetings, and did research, and I found out our rights, and what was being done elsewhere, and I found other parents who were just as angry, and helpless, and they too, were trying to stay quiet and keep the peace.
Without going into dozens of details – they might have to be held out for the days when this is all behind us and I write a book – I can state a few basic facts.
My children attend a DoDEA School.
Their peers are 96% local children.
92% of the children get ESL training.
There is NO Spanish training in grades K-5 for the 8%.
Yet, as you can imagine, the lunchrooms, playground, hallways, and even part of their academics are held in Spanish.
I turned to teachers and principals for help.
Perhaps after school tutoring? I would pay!
A spanish learners club?
I couldn’t find help.
Actually – no one even wanted to admit that there was any Spanish being spoken.
I went to the school board. The shocking response was: “Now you know how we feel when we visit your country.”
I say shocking, because I mentioned earlier that they go to a Department of Defense school. On a US Base.
Technically we are in “our” country. And even Puerto Rico is a little bit part of “our” country… we carry the same passport, and the only reason that 96% of locals can attend the school is that they are Americans and their parents work for the US government.
But that statement opened my eyes. It wasn’t just about words. It was culture. And anger. And a hate that I didn’t cause, but that my children were feeling the brunt of.
We live someplace that wants to be Puerto Rico. A majority of the people don’t want Americans telling them what to do. I get that. And at school, I think it is resented that when almost everyone speaks Spanish, they are required to speak English. So they don’t. And it only hurts a very small portion of kids.
Except that those are my kids in that little portion.
Every day I drop off my children at a place where they are generally unwanted. Where they look different. And sound different. And kids take their things.
And some days they are singled out and belittled.
And other days they are ignored.
And some days are fine, and good.
And I want to pull them out. But they have just as much a right to be there as anyone else.
And I thank God every day for the other few, those others who are stranded here with us. They provide friendship, and support, and an understanding that no one else can give.
I pray that this experience makes my children empathetic. That someday they will remember, and reach out and help someone else who is different, and lonely.
Yesterday I went before the school board to plead for equal treatment. You see there are laws that mandate that Spanish-speaking children get English classes…. but no one ever thought of making a law that works the other way around.
In a small library, at a meeting that usually only has about 15 people (mostly board members and principals,) it was standing room only. I feel like they heard us.
I share my speech:
Have you ever wished that you could go back in time and do things differently?
If I only knew then what I know now, maybe I could have prepared my children better, maybe I could have made it easier…. but hindsight is 20-20. And such is the life of a military parent.
In getting ready to move our 4 children here, we talked about living in a different culture. They had already lived in Europe, so they had an understanding of different language, different food, different customs…. But I assured them that while they might feel like an outsider and at times, uncomfortable in their new city, every day, when we drive through the gates of a US Military Base, we are at home. Every morning when they walk through the doors of a Department of Defense school, they will belong.
And I sold them on Puerto Rico as if I were a great travel agent… snorkeling, beaches, a rain forest, AND for the first time in their academic careers, they would be in school with kids JUST LIKE THEM. I promised them classrooms full of children who had moved all around the world because of their parents’ jobs. And why did I tell them these things? Because that’s how it looks from afar.
The website shows that the population is 60% military, another 25% FBI and DEA… And I made assumptions that like all the other schools worldwide, there would be a great diversity of children and teachers. And when I asked, I had been assured that it was an English Speaking school.
My first suggestion would be to give incoming families a broader image of what the schools have to offer. I don’t think acknowledging the bilingual aspect is a bad thing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their children to pick up another language. But when you’re not expecting it, the surprise can be overwhelming.
Especially when you are 6, and you live in a new home, and you are lonely, and you feel different and you look different and all the kids that your mom promised would be your new friends you can’t understand, and they don’t understand you.
Right now, on the school websites, the links for new families lead to a dead page. If you look on the High School page, the curriculum link leads back to the main DoDEA site and it appears that the high school offers a variety of languages and AP courses that don’t actually exist here. For a parent trying to make the best academic choices for their teens, it is very frustrating to agree to an assignment under one impression, and find something different once you are here.
My next suggestion is for when families arrive. A new family orientation before school starts would be so helpful. Families could tour the building and meet the teachers. I can’t tell you just how much easier the first day would be, knowing that registration is complete, that they can find their classroom and that they understand how to get to their bus at the end of their day.
During those first few weeks of school, pairing up the kids in a mentorship program would give them a person to count on. For the little ones, it would be a friend on the playground. For the teens, someone to sit with in the frightening masses of a middle school cafeteria. This could be the start of breaking down fears and starting communication.
And communication is huge! Antilles schools are not just English Speaking schools. They are English AND Spanish. While a student who only speaks English will advance academically, they never get to be a part of the full community. For so much of the community is in Spanish. On the playground, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, between teachers….. the relationships take place in Spanish.
English-speaking kids could really use a course in Survival Spanish. If a child only speaks Spanish they are given ESL training. DoDEA’s program is in place to meet both their social and academic needs. I am not requesting extra or better treatment, I am asking for equal treatment. In DODEA schools in 12 other countries there is a HOST NATION PROGRAM. The children learn words that are meaningful and age appropriate. I am not talking about conjugating verbs, they are learning language to introduce themselves, to make friends, to ask for help. AES does have a culture program in place. In March my 2nd grader brought home work sheets about leprechauns and St Patrick’s Day. While that is fun, and cultural, he needs to assimilate here, in Puerto Rico.
I know that language differences come into play when looking at the dramatic differences in academic levels. This is a concern for all parents, not just military. I know that meeting every need of every child in every classroom is asking for a miracle. I don’t have the perfect solution. What I will say is that the kids who are moving often don’t have a lot of room for error. And it is worrying to look at test scores and wonder how far behind my kids might be when we arrive at our next location.
Yes, I am already thinking about our next location, because even though it feels as if we just arrived, we aren’t too far from leaving. That is our life.
I know some of you understand it well, but not everyone grew up in a military family. It would be great if the training that teachers and counselors got was focused more on the emotional and academic needs of the kids and less on acronyms and the rank structure of their parents.
Our kids don’t hold rank.
They don’t get promotions based on the number of elementary schools they attended.
When we give them 6 weeks’ notice to pack up, say good-bye, and start over somewhere new, they aren’t awarded any medals.
But just like their parents who serve, I think they are HEROES.
And so, today I plead with a school board and a community and a country that is so rich with culture and heritage: Please welcome our traveling children who aren’t really “from” anywhere. Teach them your language. And help them fit in for the short time that they call Puerto Rico their “home.”