As Elizabeth Czastkiewicz led kindergarteners in a circle dance at PS 34, she asked her students several questions in Polish.
“Are you in Warsaw?” she said.
“No!” they cried.
“Are you in Krakow?”
“Well…where are you?”
“We’re in New York!”
Czastkiewicz’s class marks the beginning of New York City’s first Polish Dual Language Program. To local residents, it comes as no surprise that the program should make its debut at PS 34. Despite massive changes to the neighborhood in recent years, Greenpoint is still home to one of the highest concentrations of Polish immigrants and Polish-Americans in the United States. Parents also point to the school’s strong sense of community.
On Thursday, September 10, PS 34 formally introduced the program, with parents, city and local officials and diplomats in attendance. Local Polish media, including newspaper Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News), online magazine Debra Polska Szkola (Good Polish School) and Radio Rampa, were also on hand to cover the event.
District 14 Superintendent Alicja Winnicki, herself a Polish immigrant and former principal of the school, congratulated Principal Carmen Asselta, teachers and parents on implementing the program in the heart of Greenpoint.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students,” Winnicki said. “In a world [that] requires adults to be bilingual and sometimes multilingual, I believe we are preparing our students for a bright future. We also want our children to be proud of their heritage, and to remember their parents’ background.”
Urszula Gacek, the Consul General of Poland in New York, called the program “a milestone.” Given her own personal background – an English-born, Oxford-educated daughter of emigres who went on to become a Polish senator and a Member of the European Parliament – Gacek said, “I can’t imagine not supporting the Polish Dual Language Program.”
Others in attendance also praised the school for its initiative in bilingual education. Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor for English Language Learners, said statistics showed that children who have been taught in a Dual Language program have gone on to become “the highest achievers in our schools.”
Assemblyman Joe Lentol, the son of an Italian father and Lithuanian mother, praised the school for “celebrating the diversity of our neighborhood.”
“When I was growing up in Greenpoint, I heard a lot people say, ‘Why don’t they speak English?’” said Lentol. “And I thought, ‘What a narrow point of view.’ I didn’t have the opportunity to learn my parents’ languages or cultures in grade school.”
Grateful that his youngest constituents would not miss that chance, Lentol thanked parents in English, Polish and Spanish.
The Polish Dual Language is currently limited to one kindergarten class, K-111, where the same unit lessons are taught in English and Polish. On their first day, twenty students wrote their names, held simple dialogues in both languages and drew their favorite toys. The school is planning to expand the program to first grade by next year. Currently, the program is almost entirely funded by PS 34, although it receives minor benefits from the Department of Education for curriculum development.
Asselta and Winnicki credited Julia Kotowski, the parent of a first grader, with bringing the program to fruition. Kotowski, however, modestly replied that it started with Polish mothers sitting in the park.
“Someone said that there’s a law that allows for a Dual Language Program to be present in a school,” she recalled. “A few of us got together, did some research and brought our idea to Principal Asselta. She got in touch with Winnicki and within a week a meeting was arranged.”
In addition to partnerships with the Polish Consulate in New York and other Polish cultural institutions, parent involvement will be an integral part of the program, Asselta said. Volunteerism, such as reading to their children in English and Polish, is widely encouraged and practiced. (Attendees at Thursday’s event were treated to kielbasa and homemade cakes.)
“We want our parents to feel invested in our school,” Asselta said. “This is a community effort, and they are an active part of the school team.”