Polish Gains Popularity at NYC Public School  

Kindergarten, known as “zero class,” with teacher Ewa Syta. (Photo by Aleksandra Pietrusiewicz)

Launched in 2015, the Dual Polish Language Program (DPLP) at P.S. 34 in Greenpoint – the first, and so far, the only one in New York City – has turned out to be a huge success. The classes quickly fill with students, among whom are also children from American families who simply want to learn Polish.

The DPLP was first introduced in kindergarten two years ago. This fall the program reaches third grade. Like in previous years the classes are filled. “I think it is a great program focused on making children fully bilingual in Polish and English,” says Carmen Asselta, principal of P.S. 34. “We started it two years ago at the request of the parents. I consider it a great success. Thanks to this program we are giving our students a chance to learn two languages, a great asset for their future life,” Asselta adds.

Since the program starts in kindergarten, and each year includes a higher grade, older students unfortunately can’t sign up for dual language instruction. However, because of huge interest, P.S. 34 offered after-school Polish classes for the older students.

“After Poland joined the European Union, the status of the country improved, and the country itself as well as the language generate more interest,” says principal Asselta.

The consul general of Poland in New York, Maciej Golubiewski, agrees. “The Polish language is no longer ‘an exotic’ language of some unknown country. On the contrary, it is the language of the sixth largest economy in the EU and one of the 30 largest in the world. There are close to 40 million citizens living in Poland and millions abroad. Students in America who learn Polish will have an additional asset when applying for jobs. Especially since many American companies now invest in Poland. These companies need people with proper qualification,” says consul Golubiewski.

The Consulate General of Poland in New York has since the beginning supported the implementation of the DPLP in P.S. 34. The consulate not only continues to support the development of the initiative but also has provided the school with teaching materials such as educational coloring books. The consul general helped organize a lesson about Polish heroes, which was taught by Poland’s minister of education and suggested a workshop with renowned Polish artists Rafal Olbinski and Piotr Perski.

Employees of the Consulate General of Poland have for a couple of years participated in Flag Day and took part in the reading of the tale about bear-soldier Wojtek. “We are very grateful for the support of the Polish Consulate, which acknowledges how important the Dual Polish Language Program is,” says principal Asselta.

The DPLP is the only bilingual program in P.S. 34, and the only program of its kind in the entire New York City school system. In order to introduce the program in a school, there needs to be a certain number of students interested in learning a foreign language, the parents need to lobby with the principal of their kids’ school and submit a written request to have a dual language program launched in their school.

Besides Greenpoint, the launching of the DPLP could be popular in Maspeth and Ridgewood, where, for example, P.S. 71 offers after-school Polish lessons. The Dobra Polska Szkola Foundation [“Good Polish School”], which has been an advocate for bilingualism, plans an educational campaign to make parents aware of the options and the process for introducing a DPLP in their school.

“In letters to the city’s schools chancellor and Madelene Chan, the superintendent of Queens School District 24, which houses schools attended by children from Polish-American families, I expressed my support for launching the Dual Polish Language Program in public schools in Queens,” says consul Golubiewski. “Knowing languages is a great asset. That’s why I support programs that teach two languages right from the beginning,” he adds.

Covering the Common Core in two languages

In P.S. 34, some 50 children attend the dual language classes, which are taught by three teachers with certificates in bilingual instruction: Eva Janda-Sipe, Ewa Syta – also a teacher in one of the Saturday Polish schools – and Aleksandra Pietrusiewicz who has for years been an ESL teacher. Helping them is Iwona Borys, a bilingual school counselor who supports the DPLP.

“The teachers are deeply involved with the program and work hard to make sure that they cover the Common Core curriculum,” says P.S. 34 principal Asselta.

The teachers also created the materials for teaching the Polish language and culture. “We got tremendous help from Greenpoint’s Polonia Bookstore with which we have cooperated since the beginning of the program,” says Borys.

The lessons in the DPLP are not any different from regular classes taught in New York City schools. “The curriculum is the same, but enriched with a couple of extra classes. The only difference is that the teacher teaches the material in two languages,” says Borys. In other schools, though, a dual program class may have two different teachers, each speaking one target language. The goal of the DPLP is not to replace the Saturday Polish School, but rather to utilize the Polish language as a tool and means of communication in the learning and covering the Common Core curriculum.

“There are classes that involve teaching basic Polish because there are students in the DPLP who don’t speak the language and need a leg up before they can learn in Polish,” says Borys. In other classes the teacher talks about new concepts in English and then continues the discussion in Polish or vice versa. There is no translation, but rather interchangeable use of both languages in the teaching process. This way the language becomes a vehicle for learning new material.

“My daughter Isabella didn’t speak much Polish at first. When she started kindergarten, she preferred English. We placed her in the DPLP, and even though at first we feared she might have problems learning English, now I can see she is doing great in both languages. I am very happy with the learning results,” says Isabella’s mother Ola.

Research shows that children develop better intellectually if in the process of learning they can use their first language. Furthermore, in a bilingual setting, students who learn the basis in their native language later transfer the knowledge into the other language. This way it is easier for them to learn new concepts and the other language. As a result they quickly catch up with monolingual peers when it comes to acquiring the required curriculum knowledge, and later surpass them in results.

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