Vol. 16, No. 13  June 19 - July  2, 2003


School Strengthens Bangladeshi Language and Culture 


By the time she was 5, Susanna Uddin was already getting a grasp on her ABC's. But her parents also wanted her to learn 50 other far more complex letters -- the serpentine script of Bengali, the native tongue of Bangladesh.

"There are lots of curves and lines," said Susanna, a Norwood third-grader. "And there are more letters than in the English alphabet."

But through a boost from a special local program, Susanna can now write the beautiful script and converse with her father. She's also performed Bangladeshi dances, sung traditional songs, and made a lot of friends in the process.

This year, the Bangladeshi English as a Second Language (ESL) program at PS/MS 20 celebrated its fifth year of success in helping local kids like Susanna, who are fluent in English, preserve their heritage, and communicate with their immigrant parents. At the same time, it has been instrumental in helping Bangladeshi-born kids learn to speak and write English.

Created in 1998, after local parents lobbied school officials, the program offers instruction to an average of 20 kids in the Norwood school. Starting with just kindergarten, first grade was added soon thereafter. 

The two-year program is the only one of its kind in the Bronx, and one of the few in the entire city (there are others in Queens). "Parents move from other areas in the borough to bring their children to the program," said Naima Begum, the class's first teacher who is still very involved with the endeavor. 

According to the 2000 Census, there are 1,100 area residents originally from Bangladesh. Immigration from the country has steadily grown. Just 10 years ago, there were 820 residents who answered "Other Asian" in the Census (which included six other nationalities in addition to Bangladeshi).

These substantial numbers and the uniqueness of the Bengali language make for a very tight-knit, but relatively insular, community. "Culturally, they are really isolated," said Urmi Sarkar, the program's current teacher. "They don't inter-mix with other communities much."

But intermingling is one of the program's core components. Every Friday, first graders do guided reading exercises with student "buddies" from other PS/MS 20 first grade classes. 

It can be a hard adjustment at first. As Jasmine Islam, one first grader, wrote in her composition book: "I feel different because my buddy is looking at me too much." But most children grow to love the opportunity, says Sarkar. "They really want to learn English," she said. 

Learning English at their own pace, among other Bengali speakers, helps build confidence. "Many of them came from a particular area in Bangladesh . . . so they have the same accent," Sarkar said. "They understand each other. They are happy about being together."

Their joy was apparent on one Wednesday afternoon, where part of the class was playacting. One girl donned a long flowing skirt and covered her head in fabric. "It reflects their culture," said Sarkar. "They are acting out a marriage ceremony."

They've had practice at this ritual. Traditional wedding dances is one art form the class learned and performed for school events. "I like performing the Bangladeshi wedding dances," said Fowjeya Naznin, a Norwood 6-year-old. "We dressed up in orange saris."

Seven-year-old Muntha Chowdhury likes singing songs in Bengali. "They are about dancing, kings and people in Bangladesh," she said.

The cultural component is what really hooks parents, says Jose Flores, PS/MS 20's assistant principal. "They love to come to the performances," he said. Over 100 parents, most armed with video cameras, came to celebrate the program's anniversary and watch their children dance at a recent PS/MS 20 event. "That's what really motivates them . . . for their children to maintain and respect the culture," Flores said. 

That motivation spills over to the parents. "They are very involved," Flores said. "They show up all the time, and are very concerned about the progress of their children." Many parents don't speak much English, but communicate through Sarkar or Begum to school staff. 

Begum has been working to change that, offering a Saturday ESL class for parents and program graduates in her spare time. Currently, about 20 parents attend. While she isn't paid, Begum finds the work tremendously rewarding.

A Riverdale resident who left Bangladesh 11 years ago, Begum did not know about the Bangladeshi community in Norwood before her work with the program. "I found all these people from my country," she said. "I fell in love with the parents. I'm still in touch with lots of them."

All the efforts of Begum and Sarkar, and the parents, seem to be paying off. "The 
students are doing very well," Flores said. "They are some of the best readers and writers we have in the school."

Middle schooler Fasima Hussein, who volunteers time in the class her little sister attends, has witnessed some of that progress. "They could hardly read at all," she said. "They are getting better."

Susanna is excelling in her continued studies at PS/MS 20. "I think we should be 
challenged more," she said. "They should give harder math problems and harder words in our homework."

While attendance in the program ebbs and flows, the local presence of a vibrant 
Bangladeshi community continues -- as is evident by the many mothers clad in saris picking up their children from PS/MS 20. And for those involved, the hunger to share their knowledge is ongoing.

Sarkar, originally from India, taught for six years there but hadn't been in American schools until PS/MS 20. "It feels good to be teaching again," she said, as a student handed her a folded piece of paper. In colorful crayon, the note stated in clear English lettering: "I love you Ms. Sarkar!"

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