MELROSE — Principal Carmen Toledo-Guerrero, the Bronx-born daughter of parents from Puerto Rico, entered the city’s school system unable to speak English.
Many years later, Toledo-Guerrero, 46, speaks the language fluently with a Bronx inflection, but she has yet to leave the school system. Having worked her way up from teacher’s aide to teacher to staff developer to assistant principal, she now heads P.S. 25, the city’s first bilingual school.
When she arrived at the elementary at 811 E. 149th St. in 2008, its fortunes had fallen along with the rest of the district.
Toledo-Guerrero was determined to reverse its slide. She revamped the curricula, pushed data-driven planning, encouraged collaboration, replaced some staff and even had the walls repainted brighter tints.
In her first year, the school’s state exam pass rates skyrocketed 36 percentage points in English and 37 points in math, according to DOE records. (As the state has made it tougher to pass the tests, the school’s scores have drifted back to earth, but not to their pre-2009 levels.)
Today, about a third of the students at P.S. 25 The Bilingual School arrive, as their principal once did, without a command of English.
About half of those students are foreign born, mostly from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Toledo-Guerrero said. Many arrive barely able to read or write in their native language, much less in English, she added.
Parents whose children need to learn English decide whether they will take transitional bilingual classes, where most instruction is in their native language with some English learning, or ESL classes, where all instruction is in English, with some support in their native language.
Unsurprisingly, most parents opt for the bilingual classes, Toledo-Guerrero said.
Q: What was your experience like as an English-language learner in a Bronx public school?
I felt a lot of pressure. I felt intimidated and afraid sometimes to speak, because I didn’t understand what they were saying or how to use the enunciation. But I had one teacher say to me, “You have so much to offer.” She actually saw something in me, so that she felt I was truly going to make it. She said, “You can do this. Carmen, speak up.”
Q: How does that experience shape your interactions with students who are still learning English?
I tell students when they’re arriving that not only are they lucky to be in a school like this and have this opportunity, but I went through the same experience and I’m the principal now. I was able to learn English. And they look at me like, “Wow! You actually experienced what I’m experiencing?” They’ll ask me questions, like, “How did you make friends?” It gives them a comforting experience.
Q: How does the school support students who are recent immigrants?
As soon as we have someone new, we immediately share them with the community. We have someone walk the child through the whole building. We also assign a student or two to support the child. We immediately start planning that type of social support. We also provide workshops for parents to help their child transition and them transition into the school system.
Q: What does instruction look like for students who are still learning English?
It’s about really building the whole language. It’s not just instruction. It’s getting the child involved in discussion. Being able to get all children involved in collaborative learning, supporting each other at different levels. It’s being really strategic in the classroom.
Q: Your motto is, “Believe and achieve.” Have you seen that play out in your school?
I had one student here who came into the third grade and this child had had no previous schooling. He came from a tribe in Central America who spoke their own dialect. Spanish was not so much his native language. English was definitely not there. Looking at a student like that, it scared me that he could have been in another school and, who knows, the teacher could have felt it would have been a waste of time to give him what he needs because he wouldn’t be able to achieve it.
Well, thankfully, he came across excellent teachers. We all sat together and made a plan for this child. When we noticed his mathematical skills were steadily increasingly, we used that to build on.
I have to say that this young man graduated last year fully biliterate and scored a 3 [in English] and a 4 in math [on the state exams]. So within three years, he was able to bring his language from beginner to intermediate and almost advanced. And I saw him recently in middle school, and he’s doing very well.