Polish Saturday Schools Serve a Changing Diaspora

Students at Henryk Sienkiewicz in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn spend Saturdays learning Polish language and culture. (Photo by Joanna Plucinska/Voices of NY)

Students at Henryk Sienkiewicz in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn spend Saturdays learning Polish language and culture. (Photo by Joanna Plucinska/Voices of NY)

A classroom of 10-year-olds at the Our Lady Of Guadalupe School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, is running through their weekly lessons: history, geography, grammar. They study their books carefully as their teacher talks. Just as in any American classroom, the walls are covered with posters and student work. But, in this case, the work doesn’t belong to the students sitting at the desks. And their books aren’t in English. 

These aren’t the only unusual aspects of the school. Classes meet just once a week – on Saturdays. They’re held in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, a private pre-k through 8th grade school at 1520 72nd Street in Brooklyn, but the Saturday school’s official name is Henryk Sienkiewicz, after a famous Polish journalist and author. And the lessons are all in Polish, the language of these children’s parents and grandparents.

Anna Kubicka, the director of Henryk Sienkiewicz, says the Saturday school provides students a much-needed connection with their ancestral roots. But, given the limited class time, the curriculum is designed to give students the essentials. “We try to teach them about the economic and political situation. We want them to understand what they’re looking at in a museum when they go to Poland to visit family,” Kubicka explained.

Though it’s only been meeting at the Our Lady of Guadalupe School site for three years, the Henryk Sienkiewicz school has been teaching children in the Polish diaspora since the 1920s. It celebrated its 85th anniversary this fall with speeches and songs – all in Polish, of course.

Kubicka said the school has faced relocation many times, moving from churches to the former Polish National House, now called Grand Prospect Hall, to the current location in Bensonhurst. “There were tough moments, each move is hard,” said Kubicka.

Student numbers have also fluctuated. In the 1920s, when Eastern European migration to the U.S. was growing, the first Polish schools in U.S. cities began to appear. In its early years, Henryk Sienkiewicz had around 150 students.

But immigration slowed after World War II, when Poland became a satellite of the Soviet Union and endured harsh restrictions on migration. With fewer immigrants arriving in New York and other American cities, Polish language schools such as Henryk Sienkiewicz began to shrink.

“During the post-war years, our school had only about 60 students,” said Kubicka. “But later, incrementally, the number of students grew.” Now, there are over 300 students enrolled. Students from prekindergarten through 11th grade are enrolled in the school, and while some attend for a number of years, few stick it out past age 14 or so.

A young student at the Henryk Sienkiewicz school (photo by Joanna Plucinska)

A young student at the Augustyn Kordecki school in the East Village (Photo by Joanna Plucinska/Voices of NY)

Parents pay a fee of $320 per student for a “school year” of 30 Saturdays. While most parents are immigrants from Poland, some are themselves first-generation Americans who want to be sure that their children keep up with the language and culture of Poland.

Kubicka arrived in the United States in 1990 after the fall of the Polish Communist government during one of the largest waves of immigration to America. The immigrants of the 1990s were searching for better educational and economic prospects in the U.S., but still sent many of their children to Polish language schools in New York City to maintain a link with their homeland.

Today, Polish and Eastern European immigration to America is again falling. With improving economic conditions and Poland’s membership in the European Union, most Poles are now immigrating to the U.K. or France, or simply staying put.

But enrollment remains strong at Polish and other Eastern European language schools in the U.S. New York City has seven Saturday Polish schools. The Latvian community has Saturday schools in the Bronx and on Long Island. And several years ago, New York’s Lithuanian-speaking immigrants started the Aleksandros Kazickienes school, similar to the Henryk Sienkiewicz school, on Long Island.

The Council of Polish Supplementary Schools, an organization based in Dix Hills, New York, plays a major role in maintaining interest in the Saturday schools. When ethnic dual-language day schools were phased out in the U.S. in the 1920s, the Council was formed to find an alternative – and the Saturday Polish language school was born. The council now oversees 65 Polish schools along the East Coast.

Whether it’s arranging proms for Polish high school seniors, poetry reciting contests or pedagogical workshops for their teachers, the Council works hard to maintain an amicable, social connection between members of the diaspora, says President Dorota Andraka. The Council has also established a uniform curriculum for the Polish schools, including instruction about Polish language, history, geography, culture and religion.

“We are shifting the direction of the curriculum, because most of our students” were born in the U.S., Andraka said. “Polish is their second language. The instruction is completely different for them,” she said, explaining that the curriculum seeks to recognize this with simpler, more accessible instructional materials.

Parents who send their children to Saturday school hope that they will maintain some link to their ancestors’ culture. Tomek Sieczka, 41, immigrated from Kielce in Poland 11 years ago. He has two American-born daughters, ages 4 and 7, who attend Augustyn Kordecki school in the East Village every Saturday.

“At home, we only speak Polish,” Sieczka said. “Sometimes they complain about going to Polish school, but once we get here, they say, ‘OK, I’ll go.’”

The commitment to weekly Polish school has had a lasting impact on some students. Among those who assist with teaching are graduates of the schools, like Ewa Przybylka, 17, a high school senior. Every week, she helps out with the kindergarten class at Henryk Sienkiewicz School.

Born in the U.S., Przybylka admits that she didn’t always find Polish school exciting when she attended. But she says that her friends and her lifelong connection with the school kept her coming back and led her to her volunteer position today.

“The friends from Polish school are my best friends, they’re my closest friends,” said Przybylka, as she gathered with other assistants after classes ended one recent Saturday.  The U.S. “is where my whole life is,” she said. “But I always feel like I’m connected with the Polish community.”