Vol. 11, No. 13 June 25 - July 22, 1998


Photo by Jordan Moss

Mohi Khan, surveys in hand, took a break from telling parents at PS 56 about new Bangladeshi kindergarten planned for PS 20 next fall. He posed for a photo with his daughter, Sanjana.

Bangladeshis Victorious in Kindergarten Bid


Public school parents are used to fighting for what they want for their kids. They're less accustomed to actually getting it, and even less accustomed to getting it quickly. This spring, to the satisfaction of everyone involved, a group of Bangladeshi-American residents of Norwood did both.

Beginning this fall, Norwood's PS 20 will be home to the first bilingual kindergarten program in the Bronx for children of Bangladeshi descent. All it took was a little initiative and citizen action on the part of parents and the enthusiastic cooperation of District 10 officials.

Local leaders in the Bangladeshi community decided the kindergarten was necessary when they realized many Bengali-speaking parents could not communicate with their English-speaking children and their teachers. Mohi Khan, whose daughter attends PS 56, remembered watching a child in front of the school talking with his teacher,while the child's mother stood off to the side, unable to understand what either was saying. It turned out that the child was talking to the teacher about why he couldn't do his homework.

After enlisting the help of organizers with the Mosholu Woodlawn South Community Coalition (MWSCC), Khan, together with other parents, surveyed their neighbors, gathered signatures and invited District 10 officials to a meeting.

Ruth Lopez, the district's director of bilingual programs in District 10, said the parents seemed "set for [a] battle. They had this whole presentation." But Lopez, whose job it is to support and develop bilingual programs, needed little convincing. "I said, 'Wonderful! I agree with you!'" she recalled.

Aside from the very practical considerations of communication, parents were concerned that their children were losing their native language and culture. At the meeting, Lopez said parents expressed that they wanted their kids "to learn to read [Bengali] and to see it as a language that they're proud of and want to be able to retain."

At one of the first meetings parents had with MWSCC, back in March, another parent, Nozrul Khan, said his child is now shy about speaking Bengali and that the school system should help by reinforcing it. "If there's institutional assistance and recognition, then they'll not feel shy," he said.

Lopez said the parents' ideas were very much in line with the district's vision of encouraging children to be bilingual or even trilingual. "Their concept is one that we respect and value and it falls within the mission and philosophy of our district," Lopez said.

The program is for all Bangladeshi children, whether their primary language is Bengali or English. Lopez said the children will be aided in learning the language they are less familiar with by being in the same environment as others who are fluent.

She also pointed out that the district, with no Bengali speakers on staff, could not have done the necessary surveys and outreach to make the program happen without the help of parents. The district is currently in the process of recruiting a licensed Bengali teacher.

While many schools in District 10 have Spanish bilingual programs, this is the first program for another language. Khan said Bengali is the fifth most spoken language in the city. Norwood's growing Bangladeshi community is reflective of that statistic. When Khan first arrived in Norwood 12 years ago, there were three other Bangladeshi families living there. Now, there are about 80, he said.

Many of the school-age children in those families would ordinarily go to different local elementary schools, depending on where they lived. To get a critical mass of kids to warrant the program, the children will all go to PS 20.

Though the program is only for kindergarten-age children, the district intends to add a grade each year as the initial group progresses. There are also plans for an after-school program for older children.

Leaders in the local Bangladeshi community did not have to look far for assistance in coming up with a plan to gather the necessary information and reach out to the school system. Many of them had already become involved with MWSCC when several Bangladeshi young men were beaten two years ago by a small group of local teenagers.

Members of MWSCC, an affiliate of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, worked with them to contact police, seek justice in the courts, and organize a successful March for Unity last September - a procession that snaked down Bainbridge Avenue and ended up on Mosholu Parkway for a joyous multicultural celebration.

Looking back at the unfortunate incidents of a couple of years ago, Mohi Khan said that, ultimately, something positive came from it. "We started getting involved in the community because of bad things, and we are getting good things," he said.

Lopez said the district is equally enriched by the experience of working with the parents. "It's been a really good process for us," she said.

Ed. note: District 10 is now in the process of distributing surveys to all parents interested in sending their children to the Bengali/English kindergarten at PS 20 this fall. For more information, contact Ruth Lopez at 584-6493, Rusia Mohiuddin at 655-1054, or Mohi Khan at 652-1513.

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