Almira Elementary's Hispanic students take pride in their background and heritage. Photo taken by John Kuntz
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Omar and I are sitting in Almira Elementary School’s lobby, where the flags of about 20 countries and territories hang, representing the homelands of students and staff or places where they have heritage.
“There’s the flag,” Omar says, pointing toward the blue and white flag of El Salvador.
Omar’s parents are from the Central American country. As he talks about some of the foods his mom prepares at home, he stumbles on how to say one of them in English. He is bilingual; he speaks Spanish at home and English at school. Still, this dish is a bit harder to conceptualize. Another boy sitting in the lobby offers to help.
“Tell me it in Spanish,” the boy tells Omar.
“Plátanos,” Omar replies.
Plátano means plantain in English. Omar’s mom, Lisa, makes fried plantains to eat with beans in the morning, he says.
Omar was born in the U.S. and has never been to El Salvador, but he reps the country with pride and loves learning about his background. That connection continued to shine throughout the year. On the last day of the 2021-22 school year, he wore a blue and white El Salvador hat. And for Mother’s Day, when he and his classmates designed a mini cup in art class to give to their moms, Omar painted his cup blue for the El Salvador flag, leaving the inside white. His mother, Lisa, was pleased to receive the gift, glad that Omar remembered something from her teachings about El Salvador.
The family is building a house there to eventually return to the country. His parents tell him about the heat. It’s about 90 degrees almost every day, Lisa told me during a recent interview, while her oldest son, Darius, interpreted for her.
“I’m teaching him stuff that I used to do, showing him pictures, keeping the food with him as well,” Lisa said. “All in all, just mostly explaining how I lived my life in El Salvador.”
Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer spent a year embedded in a fourth grade classroom at Almira Elementary School for a special project called Cleveland’s Promise, documenting the lives of Cleveland kids and the many challenges of educating children growing up in poverty.
Omar’s pride in his background is common at Almira, particularly among the school’s Hispanic students, who make up 25% of the the student body, according to enrollment data. In addition to the El Salvador flag, the flags of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru also hang in the school’s lobby.
As someone who interacts and works with the school’s Spanish-speaking families, Ms. Michelle Rodriguez, a bilingual instructional aide at Almira, understands how students like Omar still connect with their culture, despite being born in the U.S.
“He is very young, and his parents haven’t been able to take him back to El Salvador,” Rodriguez told me during a recent interview. “But the way they act, the way they talk, the way they raise the kids, the way they share at home. Even though they’re not in El Salvador, they act according to their values, to their culture, to their beliefs. That is what gets him to maintain those roots, those values, that culture.”
Ms. Rodriguez was born in Pennsylvania, but her parents are from Puerto Rico. Every year, her parents would take her and her sister to Puerto Rico to meet their family and connect with their culture, and the family eventually moved back to Puerto Rica when Ms. Rodriguez was about 6 years old.
In her role at Almira, Ms. Rodriguez is positioned to help Hispanic students who are bilingual, but sometimes need encouragement or motivation in working on an assignment.
Students like Omar speak English well, so no language barrier exists. But Ms. Rodriguez sometimes speaks Spanish with them when helping with assignments because it provides comfort — students seem more relaxed when working with her.
“It’s part of those strategies that we should follow,” Ms. Rodriguez says. “Use your primary language strategically. If you know that they’re not feeling well, let’s go back to their home language. Just highlight that culture and probably help them find themselves at that moment that they’re going through and (they can) feel relief. And just switch back again — code switch — let’s go back to class and then we start in English again.”
Thank you for reading Cleveland’s Promise. Please consider supporting journalism like this by joining our community of subscribers. With a paid subscription, you gain access to everything published by a team of journalists committed to providing accurate information on news, entertainment and sports in Northeast Ohio. Please subscribe here. — Chris Quinn, Editor
For this innovative series, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two reporters unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of educating children in poverty and what the school district is doing to overcome them. Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity. Read more about this project here.
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