By Amanda Furie
María Sánchez Elementary School was erected in 1992 under the direction of Superintendent of Hartford Schools, Dr. Josiah Haig, in order to manage the overcrowding of students at Burns Elementary as well as to give more attention to the prosperous Puerto Rican population.1 The school, which is part of the Hartford Public School System and serves grades PreK through 6, was dedicated to the political and educational activist, Maria Sanchez, in recognition of her effort in creating and promoting bilingual education in the city.
Sanchez School sits in the background of one of the busiest parts of the city: Park Street. Park St. is the center of Frog Hollow, a neighborhood where the large majority of the inhabitants and business owners are Hispanic. Park St. is known as “the Latino corridor of the city.”2 There are apartments and every kind of business: little shops, restaurants, community centers and community service agencies (i.e. MI CASA and La Casa de Puerto Rico, respectively) as well as churches and libraries. The signs and posters are in Spanish and English and the music heard (like bachata, salsa, or reggaeton) also represents the Latino community that resides there. The famous “El Mercado,” a one-floor building that contains a supermarket especially for Hispanic products, small restaurants (i.e. Colombian, Mexican, or Puerto Rican), and mini-shops (i.e. one sells CDs) along with a branch of the Hartford Public Library occupy the corners of Park and Babcock Streets, where Sanchez School is located. Sanchez School is next to El Mercado and at the end of the school day the corner of Park and Babcock becomes very busy with street traffic and foot-traffic.3
Sanchez School is surrounded by a tall fence on all sides which spans about 7′ in height and almost touches the edge of the sidewalk. There are a few different entrances but most are locked during the day. The building itself, made of brick with a metal covered roof, is located 25′ from the fence. The architectural style is modern. The foundation is made from concrete and the property spans 1.330 acres. The school has 3 floors and a basement which is also used. The city bought the land for $1,285,000 on March 15, 1989 and the school was finished in 1992. The physical structure was modern for its time, especially in comparison with other elementary school in the area, such as Kinsella and Burns. The rest of Babcock St. is made up of brick or aluminum-sided two-family houses and apartments. They don’t seem too old or too new. There’s some litter on the street, but the area seems pretty clean and safe during the day. In the afternoon during the week the area is full of kids chatting, running, laughing and having fun. The library and El Mercado are also filled with students at this time of day. One street over is Burns Elementary (which is now called the Latino Studies Academy), which occupies a large space on Putnam St. It is interesting that another elementary school is so close-by, especially since it also focuses on the knowledge of Spanish and English.
In the 1950s and 60s Frog Hollow was predominantly French Canadian. St. Ann’s school and convent occupied the space of 176 Babcock and the church was, and still is, around the corner. When the economy weakened en the 60s, the U.S. Government halted the easy flow of Canadians to this country. The area in and around Park St. became more and more empty. Between 1973-7 a large number of Puerto Ricans arrived to Park St. They filled the space that the Canadians left. It was no longer necessary to have a Catholic French-Canadian school on Babcock St. and in the 80s the idea to create a new school to aid in the overcrowding of Burns came to be.6
After Sanchez School was built, because of the Bilingual Consent Decree, it became necessary to implement a bilingual program (in the languages of Spanish and English). Nearly all the students attending the school were Latino. The majority needed to be taught in Spanish and have access to a bilingual education. This is how the school is currently set up. Each grade has monolingual and bilingual classes, meaning English and English/Spanish classes. All school services are available in both languages, including specials like art or music. Upon entering the school, the students are evaluated to determine which program they should be in based on their knowledge of the languages. Nevertheless, the students that only know English can go to the bilingual class if their parents ask permission.
A dual-language program would better serve the students and their families at Sanchez School. Instead of a one-way bilingual program7, which commonly confuses students and leaves them fluent in neither language, they would have the opportunity to be completely bilingual: having mastery of both languages. The bilingual program acts as a way of teaching Spanish-speaking students (that don’t know English) in Spanish and English (instead of teaching them only in English, which tends to confuse them because: How can you learn if you don’t even understand what the teacher is saying?). The main goal is to teach them English, yet there is no means of encouraging or continuing their knowledge of Spanish (which is the language that many Sanchez School students speak at home). While it may seem like a good way to teach these students, what actually happens is because there is such a lack of time during the school year to accomplish all that is necessary, teachers tend to teach “to the test” (like the CMT) and therefore, students spend a good deal of time preparing for the CMT while their knowledge of others subjects suffers. (According to one teacher, social studies is not integrated into the curriculum for the current school year.) Another problem with the bilingual program is that the students do not practice or improve their Spanish. It is as if Spanish is on hold during the school day, which can then overlap into their life after-school or at home, which can even end in a total loss of the language, especially if their parents know or learn English. Also, the students in the school that only speak English are not offered the opportunity to learn Spanish, as in the Dual-Language Program. In the Dual-Language Program, the students develop their skills in both languages equally. Students in such a program also learn about the culture and history of Spanish-speaking countries. This is what Patricia Gándara suggests in her essay, “Learning English in California.” Gándara explains that the most effective program makes sure that the students are completely bilingual, that they have a great appreciation and orientation of the two cultures and that they acquire real cognitive advantages (Gándara 340-341).8 With such a large Hispanic community in Hartford, it remains very important that all students (not just those that are Hispanic) learn the language and about the history of the countries from where many of the current Hartford residents come.
In the first few years of the school’s existence there were many involved in the Parents’ and Teachers’ Organization. According to the school’s social worker, Herminia Cruz, there were more than 100 participants. Since then the number has dropped although many are still involved. The school boasts a fantastic medical program for their students, especially for those that don’t already receive adequate medical care. Their clinic includes access to a physician and dentist among other services. Two years ago, the Hartford School System implemented the use of uniforms and therefore this is in effect at Sanchez School. The walls on the inside of the school are plastered with posters encouraging students in Spanish and English. When you enter the school the first thing you see is a large hanging sign saying “¡Bienvenidos Padres! Welcome Parents!” which demonstrates the use of both languages in the school. Also in the entrance is the office, which has a large color photo of Maria Sanchez as if she is keeping watch over her school. The school community always celebrates her life in January with a party in her memory. In the 1990s the students made a poetry book where Sanchez was the subject of every poem.
The decision to name the school in memory of Maria Sanchez was not a done deal. It was Edwin Vargas Jr., president of the Puerto Rican Political Action Committee, who suggested the school be named after his friend of many years. Along with Carmen Rodriguez (president of the Board of Ed) they succeeded in dedicating the school to Sanchez. It made so much sense: Maria Sanchez was known as “godmother of the Puerto Rican community in Hartford”9, “one of the pioneers”10, and “jibara”11. Everyone knew her. Kids knew her as the woman that sold them candy and adults knew her as never giving up. According to Bishop Peter Rosazza, to whom she was a good friend and who also celebrated the mass of her funeral, she was well respected and strong. She was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the CT State House of Representatives, a member of the Hartford Board of Education and of many grassroots organizations.12
Sanchez School is accessible to the public but has a limited visitation policy. The main office is open from 8 am to 4 pm Monday through Friday. Please see the Hartford Public School’s website for admission application information: http://www.hartfordschools.org/ or the Sanchez School webpage for more information about the curriculum: http://www.hartfordschools.org/schools/SanchezSchool.php.
1 Interview with Edwin Vargas, ex-President of PRPAC. 3 Mar 2009.
2 Interview with Leticia Cotto, Librarian of the Park St. Branco of the Hartford Public Library. 4 Mar 2009.
4 Assessor’s Office of the City of Hartford. “Unofficial Property Record Card” http:///assessor.hartford.gov/RecordCard.asp
5 Interview with Herminia Cruz, Sanchez School Social Worker. 24 Feb 2009.
6 Interview with Bishop Peter Rosazza, Auxiliary Bishop y Vicar General for the Hispanic Apostulate of the Archdiocese of Hartford, 4 Mar. 2009.
7 The One-Way Bilingual Education Program is defined as: an educational program that begins to teach a student in Spanish but incorporates the use of English more and more until the student is being taught exclusively in English. It is a way of mainstreaming the students that enter the school without a good understanding of English. (Source: Interview with Sylvia Vargas: 3 Mar. 2009.)
8Gándara, Patricia. “Learning English in California.” Latinos: Remaking America. (2002): 339-358.
9Keveney, Bill. “Maria C. Sanchez dies; city Puerto Rican leader” The Hartford Courant. 21 Nov. 1989, A1, A12.
10 Interview with Fernando Betancourt, ex-Executive Director of the CT Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. 4 Mar. 2009.
11 Interview with Bishop Peter Rosazza, Auxiliary Bishop y Vicar General for the Hispanic Apostulate of the Archdiocese of Hartford, 4 Mar. 2009.
12 Interview with Edwin Vargas, ex-President de PRPAC. 3 Mar 2009.