HIGH BRIDGE — Last year, the fifth-grade valedictorian at P.S. 73 in The Bronx was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who had arrived at the school two years earlier unable to speak English.
The student’s success held special significance for the school principal, Jean Mirvil, a Haitian transplant who has specialized in working with immigrant children and their families during his nearly 29 years as a teacher, administrator and principal in the city’s public school system.
"It makes you feel like you should continue welcoming these youngsters in a very special way," said Mirvil, 56, who is set to retire at the end of this school year. "Because you can really ignite the skills that they come to us with."
Mirvil moved with his family from Port-au-Prince to Manhattan in 1970, when he was 14, and enrolled at Brandeis High School on the Upper West Side, where he excelled with the help of a devoted guidance counselor.
After studying French literature and linguistics at Queens College, he spent three years teaching English to students in Gabon in West Africa.
Back in the U.S., after he earned a master's degree in French literature and linguistics, he was at a school meeting one night, translating for an immigrant parent, when the principal told Mirvil that the school system could use a person like him.
The next day, he interviewed at a junior high school in Queens, where he was hired to teach French, including to students with learning disabilities.
During his career, he has served as the bilingual coordinator for a set of schools and also as an assistant superintendent for language and immigrant issues. He has been the principal of elementary schools in Queens and The Bronx, including P.S. 73, which he has led for the past five years.
When he retires this summer, Mirvil said he plans to spend some time with his wife of 26 years, with whom he lives in Flushing, Queens, and his two daughters, one of whom is a Bronx teacher training to become a principal.
Eventually, he hopes to return to Haiti, where he would like to train teachers and principals in ways to support students with special needs.
Q: Did any experiences you had as a new student in the U.S. shape the way you work with immigrant students?
I had a beautiful sports jacket my mother bought for me, my first one, and I went to school, to the gym. Of course my school [in Haiti] did not have the same system with gym, so I had no concept of take off my jacket and put it in the closet. Later on in the day, when I got [to the closet], my jacket was not in there. Because I did not know I was supposed to have a lock… I don’t want that to happen to any foreign youngster, wherever I am.
Q: So you also have to consider their practical knowledge when they arrive at school?
That’s correct. Life skills have to be incorporated in the academic skills you want to provide to those youngsters. You have to get them to understand the concept of survival of the fittest. If you know that it’s cold outside, don’t just put your coat anywhere — move about with it, or else someone will take it from you.
Q: What is your approach to working with students who are still learning English?
There’s been [much research] on the fact that one should really take on a consideration of the language and cultural background of our youngsters, to welcome parents, to strengthened ties with parents … When a parent feels that their language or culture, [that] they are honored, their trust in you as the leader takes on a different dimension. It does not automatically translate to higher test scores, but it certainly sets the stage for greater knowledge and understanding.
Q: How do you keep your staff motivated?
I use the analogy of an express train for the mission that we have to accomplish here. Number one, the system is moving so fast. We may have some recommendations to make a difference at this school, but we cannot do it by sleeping, we cannot do it by walking, we have to get an express train.
Q: Are there certain practices that are part of your daily routine?
I pray. [Laughs.] That is sine qua non of the work. Oh my God.
Q: What do you say when you pray?
I speak with the divine directly, ‘Give me that guidance. Lead me to do the right thing.’ I do that, and it works for me — it works well.
Q: What do you hope will be your legacy?
The love for education. For the youngsters to know that there are opportunities available to them, and they should not waste that chance. I try to explain that to the teachers as well, to make sure that they do not leave anything untouched that they could do for those youngsters.