Like most areas of New York City, Highbridge, in the Bronx, is a home to a diverse group of immigrant families. Some hail from Mexico and the Caribbean, others from South America and Africa. So it’s no surprise that nearly 40 percent of students at Family Life Academy Charter School, located in Highbridge, are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners.
It is a familiar situation for Principal Marilyn Calo, who spent 12 years as a bilingual teacher for the Department of Education. But Calo does not just look at the task from an educator’s point of view—she was an ESL learner herself.
Calo, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, has used her experience both as a teacher and a student to promote a curriculum that supports English language learners.
“Every single teacher here is trained in ESL strategy,” she said. “In this school, we can’t have teaching as usual.”
Every subject that is taught, including math, social studies or science, has an additional component targeted at English language learners. Teachers are encouraged to be “more interactive, more visual, more questioning and probing,” said Calo, who believes tangible objects helps students learn better.
She has also pushed for more professional development at Family Life Academy. While children attend hour-long classes for art, physical education or computers, teachers from each grade level plan lessons together. The school also holds faculty conferences every week.
“They have to be in synch,” Calo said. “I have pacing calendars to see what needs to be done each week.”
In addition, Calo has created a new position at Family Life Academy. Katherine Castrillo was originally a 2nd grade teacher at the school, but she now works as an instructional coach. Her job is to make sure teachers have everything they need.
“I want to relieve them of any extra work, just make it easier for them day-to-day so they can focus on their students and focus on improving their scores,” Castrillo said.
The school also makes sure to keep parents informed and involved. Parent involvement is especially important to Calo, who credits her own success to her father’s support and persistence.
The school translates everything, including report cards, into Spanish, the language most of the parents speak. It also holds PTA meetings twice, once in the evening and once in the morning, in case parents cannot make it the first time.
Castrillo thinks this all contributes to why “families are really committed to have their students comes here.”
Catherine Rodriguez, who has two children at Family Life Academy, said the name of the school could not be more accurate.
“It’s really a big family,” Rodriguez said. “The parents, the teachers and teaching assistants communicate well with each other and the kids look forward to being back.”
Family Life Academy Charter School
14 W. 170th St.
Bronx, N.Y. 10452
Marilyn Calo, Principal
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