Native Spanish Speakers Only: A Queens High School’s Unusual Requirement

BY SOMMER SAADI

As the clock nears 8:30 a.m. on the first day at Pan American International High School, it’s easy to spot the freshmen. They wait anxiously in the schedule pick-up line, clutching their backpacks or chatting with their parents, sneaking in a few final words in their native language.

Juanstiveu Munoz, a junior, stands by confidently.

“I’m not really nervous,” says Munoz. “But my freshman year, I was worried mostly that I wouldn’t know what was going on.”

That’s because, like many Pan American freshmen, Munoz didn’t know a word of English. His family immigrated to America from Colombia just before he started high school.

Students at Pan American, the factory-building-turned-school located in the Hispanic-dominated neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens, must be native Spanish speakers who have lived in the U.S. for less than four years. This year, the school’s third, Pan American is welcoming 275 students, mostly from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Colombia, to grades nine through 11. For each student, the faculty and staff strive to make the transition to the American school system a manageable challenge.

“We want to push the students so that they struggle with English but only because they’re in a safe place,” says Principal Marcella Barros, an immigrant from Colombia. “There is no fear that someone is going to get frustrated with them because they can’t say it perfectly. This is the environment to practice.”

Students at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens, pick up their schedules on the first day of school.

Students at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens, pick up their schedules on the first day of school.

The school was the first citywide public school to require students share a common native language. Last September, Pan American International High School at Monroe in the Bronx opened using the same model.

“At other schools you could have students that speak 30 to 35 languages in one school, and even 10 to 15 languages in a classroom,” says Hai Wen Chu, a member of the planning commission that started the school. “Pan American takes valuing the native language to a new level to where the students match the mission of the school.”

A student body that shares a native language also allows the school to focus its curriculum on courses that study Latin America.

“Students can study their own countries,” says Carly Fox, who teaches a Latin American History seminar at Pan American. “They can get sense of who they are even as they become acclimated to the United States.”

Photos and Audio – Sommer Saadi

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