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Principal Miriam Pedraja Teaches Uptown Children Two Languages at a Time

By Carla Zanoni | April 16, 2012 9:10am

INWOOD —  For principal Miriam Pedraja, becoming the head of The Amistad Dual Language School (MS 311) was a matter of fate.

The bilingual New York City native who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen to immigrant parents from Puerto Rico said teaching had always been her dream since she was a little girl, but when the opportunity arose to lead one of the city’s few bilingual schools she had to take it.

“I knew I was meant to prove that there is the possibility of creating a viable bilingual program,” said Pedraja, who taught second grade in District 10 in The Bronx before becoming a principal. “And here we are.”

As the head of the bilingual Spanish/English K-8 school, Pedraja has shown that the school is not only viable, but a great success.

Seats at Amistad, which was founded as a middle school in 2004 at 4862 Broadway, are in high demand. According to Pedraja, the school received 183 applications for 25 seats for the current academic year, something that has remained consistent since 2007.

“For so many of them this is the only school they are applying to,” she said. “I know it would work for all of them and it hurts to have to say ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have the space.’”

The school’s success graduating bilingual students is the reason parents are so interested in applying.

According to Pedraja, by 3rd grade approximately 70 percent of Spanish-dominant students who enrolled in the school in kindergarten have become equally balanced in English and Spanish proficiency.

For English dominant students who enroll in kindergarten at Amistad, by 1st grade they are reading books in both languages.

Although the majority of students are Spanish-dominant language students, Pedraja said students who speak French, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Russian, French, Urdu and other languages have demonstrated an amazing ability to learn both English and Spanish in the school’s program.

“Children have an amazing ability to learn languages,” Pedraja said. “It’s fascinating to watch students come in during kindergarten, some of them not knowing a lick of Spanish and very little English, and they acquire it. Some of these kids are just incredible.”

Q: Did you have a favorite subject while a student?

I love to read. In fact my family members would tell me when I was a little girl I would constantly be shoving books in their faces asking them to read to me. I can clearly remember going to the local library and going to shelves and looking for the fattest book. That was the one I wanted.

What did reading do for you and how did it impact your work today? 

It opened up my world. I read about places and things that I didn’t get to experience until I was an adult. Maybe in a very subconscious level I wanted to bring that back to the kids when I came into teaching. 

When did you decide to become a teacher?

I remember wanting to teach since I was a little girl. For Christmas they used to sell these little kits with a little blackboard, a little American flag, an eraser and chalk and I remember going into my parent’s bedroom…and I would lock myself in the room, put my little American flag up and put the board up, and I would be a teacher.

That was my favorite pastime. I would read to my students. I just remember wanting to be a teacher. It was always just there. There was no one in my family in the profession, so it wasn’t that there was anyone modeling it for me. I just liked school.

What did your parents do when you were growing up? 

Dad was a jack of many trades, but mom worked in factories, millineries for the most part of her life. Dad, the last job I remember he had was at the Empire State Club, a private club at the Empire State Building, working in culinary.

Do you remember any projects or accomplishments you were proud of from when you were in school?

I don’t know why it stands out in my mind, but I believe I was in middle school and we were learning about sonnets, studying Shakespeare, and we were then required to write a sonnet. I wrote a sonnet about orphans and when I read it now I think it was pretty good. I guess it surprises me, because I didn’t think I had it in me, and yet it came out.

Were you always a good student?

I was a really good student and very active in school. But I remember one challenge. Back then there were really no regular reading tests like you have now, but I remember you got one in 6th grade. Back in those days you had homogeneous grouping and had honors, 1, 2, 3 levels and so on, reflecting ability.

All my life I had been doing well and was in the level 1 class, but as a result of that test I wound up being placed in the 2 class. I was absolutely beside myself that I wasn’t going to be with my friends.

My parents didn’t really know how to navigate the system, so I advocated for myself. I was told by my teacher that if I got my reading level up over the summer I would be able to be moved. That whole summer all I did was read. By the time they gave us the next reading class, which was in 7th grade, I had gone from a 7thgrade reading level to a 9th grade reading level. I was bent on going back to my one class. But when I was allowed to go back, I told her I didn’t want to, because by then I had made new friends.

Did you ever get in trouble?

Not really, there was such respect in my family.  I was so deadly afraid of being caught doing anything wrong. My father never laid a finger on us. All he had to do was look at us, it was that look that petrified me more, so I never dared to do anything that broke the rules.

When did you decide to become a principal?

I wanted to become principal of a bilingual school because I do not feel they are being run right because they were not throughout the nation. I wanted to have that kind of impact. I think that’s why I was led here. I was meant to prove that there is the possibility of creating a viable bilingual program, and here we are.

What makes Amistad different from other schools?

As the head of the school, you have to really believe it and want it, because you set the tone. So then you start working with staff and they either come on board and they click or you see it’s not a match. You need real buy-in, it’s not just something you just do, because basically you are working double. So, you need that level of commitment so that they embrace all of what comes with that commitment. 

That’s the teachers. You also need to have parents that believe it. I’ve had parents put their kids here, because it’s a good school, but if you don’t embrace it, you are going to find that there are challenges.

The challenge of a dual language school is that once they’re outside of the school and this environment, where are they going to get the support for that second language? It’s not the case for the English, because the child learning English is going to hear it everywhere, but for the child who is learning Spanish as a second language, that’s the challenge.

Where would you like to see the school in the future?

My goal would be to have grown, because there is such a demand for the school. I really wish we were able to have more classes per grade. Right now we only have two, but we coexist in a building with another school, so there’s not a likelihood of that ever happening. Five years ago we were looking at the lot across the street, but we just couldn’t get access to the space.

If you could be School Chancellor for a day, what would you do?

One of the things I would change, and I don’t know how I would make it happen, but I would have [education] go back to being a little more community based. Each community is very different and that seems to be diminishing a little bit.

Also, I would not have summer school for hold overs. I would have summer school as enrichment. That’s where you are really going to make a difference. I would put my money there, because for kids who haven’t succeeded throughout the year, now in six weeks you’re expecting them to do what?

Maybe what you need to do is interest these kids in learning, maybe they’re not vested in learning for a myriad of reasons. Why not take that same money and energy and take them places where learning is fun? That’s my memory of school. It was fun. We went to museums. We had sports. So much of that is gone. Maybe bring that back to schools and kids will become engaged again.