English as New Language Learners at PNW BOCES Look Back to Look Ahead

April 12, 2019

There are people who risk their entire lives to bring a plate of food to their families. I have crossed the border. Although I am an immigrant, I am not different from you. – ENL student Zucely Zecena

As students at the PNW BOCES’ English as New Language Learners Academy work to learn both English and a new trade, one thing is often clear to their teachers. The trauma that many faced in their native countries can follow them to the United States and choke their attempts to move forward. 
This year, two Academy staffers at the Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES Tech Center – social worker Stephanie Carnes and English teacher Ellen Sugrue-Dolan – teamed up on a months-long journaling project designed to help students look back at painful experiences and begin exploring feelings that could derail their futures. The results were on view at a Family Celebration held this week at the Yorktown campus.

Four students read excerpts from the autobiographical entries that capped the project, and all students received certificates recognizing their work.

“My heart is exploding with pride at their achievements and at all they did to tell their stories in a meaningful way,” Carnes said. “The students took this project and just ran with it.”

All of the students in the program, which includes classes in English immersion, academic subjects and a variety of trades, had the opportunity to journal each week during class and reflect on questions and other prompts. As expected, the journaling led many students to follow up with private sessions with Carnes where they could discuss traumatic experiences from their earlier lives.

“We have students here who have had a lot of pain and this was a chance for them to unload a little of that,” Sugrue-Dolan said. Carnes and Sugrue-Dolan designed the project after receiving a grant from the NoVo Foundation, which seeks to foster equality and a more caring world.    

Zucely Zecena said that, for her, the journal project was an opportunity to remember episodes from her childhood and try to understand them a little better. Zucely and three classmates, Armando Lopez-Duarte, Tommy Raudales and Stephany Puentes, read their work in Spanish, with their teachers then reading aloud the English translation.

“We are not different. We came here to work hard but they try to humiliate us,” said Zucely. “I present myself as a young immigrant. I am that one who has travelled those paths to fulfill my dream here in the United States of America.”

Wrote Armando, “Because of being poor, they humiliate you, they underestimate you. But that is a blessing. Like (Puerto Rican rapper) Daddy Yankee says, the one who comes from nothing, comes blessed. I agree with him. Because that is how you learn how much it takes to rise above.”

The ENL program at the Tech Center was developed in response to the needs of school districts in Putnam and northern Westchester that were enrolling significant numbers of immigrant students. One of the primary focuses of the program is enabling students to get their TASC or Spanish TASC (high school equivalency) diploma. Along with their academic subjects, students study a trade; they can choose from cosmetology, medical assisting, business, business management, auto body, carpentry or plumbing. After completing the program, students go on to work in technical fields or to study in college.