Profile: A Bilingual Success Story

Principal Miriam Pedraja in her office at The Amistad Dual Language School (Photo by Carla Zanoni / DNAinfo)

Since it was established in 2004, seats at The Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood have become a hot commodity, with parents clamoring to get their children into the elementary and middle school where classes are held in Spanish and English.

DNA Info sat down with Miriam Pedraja, the school’s principal, to discuss the program and the secrets to its success.

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.”

The investment of the administrators, teachers, staff and parents in the school community is an essential ingredient, Pedraja said.

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.

Pedraja, who grew up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen with parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico, adored school as a child, she said, and has always aspired to become an educator. Asked what she would do if she could be schools chancellor for a day, she talked about instilling that same love of education in today’s children.

…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.