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Washington Heights Bilingual School Gets Ready to Open

By Nigel Chiwaya | September 3, 2013 9:25am
 Dos Puentes Elementary School will welcome its first kindergarten class this September.
Bilingual School Prepares to Open in WaHi
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Dos Puentes Elementary School principal Victoria Hunt has a week left before the start of classes, and she expects to spend nearly every minute of it putting the finishing touches on the school.

The big, airy rooms are still being decorated with books and dinosaurs. Hunt's husband, Anthony Wan, a professional contractor, had spent an hour installing a whiteboard over an old chalkboard in one of the rooms on a recent visit. In another, there is a space in the middle for desks that have not yet arrived.

"We're getting our tables tomorrow," Hunt said with a shy smile. "We just put up our whiteboards. That's progress."

These are fast-paced days for Dos Puentes, a brand new elementary school located in the decades-old P.S. 132 building on 185 Wadsworth Ave. The school welcomes its first kindergarten class on Sept. 9, and the months preceding have been a whirlwind of preparation, planning and publicity.

In addition to decorating the school's four classrooms, Hunt said that the school's staff has been busy completing home visits with students, working on staff development and helping spread the word about the school to parents.

"It takes time," Hunt said. "You have to have patience. While you have a deep vision about what you want the school to become, you have to let it get there."

Dos Puentes arrived in Washington Heights in the middle of a battle over the future of the school it shares a building with, P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte. The Department of Education had slated the school for closure, but relented in the face of strong community pressure. Instead, Dos Puentes was co-located as a zoned school in 132's building.

Parents and community members expressed outrage over 132's fate, but Hunt said that none of the anger had been directed toward her school.

"I feel like the community has only been good to us," Hunt said. "The community was very upset that Juan Pablo Duarte was being asked to be co-located, but I feel like they've been very wonderful to us as individuals and they've never made it about Dos Puentes."

Bilingualism is important at Dos Puentes, where all of the teachers speak two languages. Hunt insists that it's critical that every student and family member feel comfortable and accepted in the school.

Hunt displayed this approach during an interaction with a parent who was inquiring about registering her child for classes. Hunt spoke in Spanish, drawing a confused reaction from the parent.

"Is English better?" Hunt asked.

"No, Spanish is OK," the mother said, before adding "but your Spanish is good."

Hunt said interactions such as this put parents at ease.

"It's very important that even though my language isn't perfect, they can use their language to express themselves," Hunt said. "It changes your relationship with parents when they can use the language that they're most comfortable with."

The school — which Hunt said hoped to fill three kindergarten classes with 25 students each — will offer several benefits to parents. Hunt has secured partnerships with Teacher's College and City College, both of which will be providing teacher's assistants to the school. The assistants, coupled with the regular class teacher and a bilingual pupil-service intern, means that each class will have at least two adults in a room at any time.

Dos Puentes will also offer an artist in residence, providing folklore and dance instruction, and children will also spend the year making a documentary about themselves as they learn about composting.

Family involvement will also be emphasized. In September, the school begin its "Family Fridays" slate of activities, which will give parents the chance to come into the school building, see what their children are doing and even participate as guest speakers.

Dos Puentes Elementary School is still accepting students. Interested parents can email dospuenteselementary@gmail.com or call 212-781-1803.