Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Native New Yorker Finds Spanish a ‘Lost’ Skill

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 01, 2012 2 min read
Eighth grader Alisa Rodriguez, left, talks with classmate Diana Huerta after school ends at the Family Life Academy Charter School. Alisa is one of the few students of Puerto Rican descent at the mostly Latino school in New York.

Alisa Rodriguez is a quintessential New York City teenager. Of Puerto Rican descent, Rodriguez was born in the Bronx 14 years ago to parents who were also raised in that New York City borough. Her mother and father graduated from big public high schools in the city.

But Rodriguez’s parents—her mother is a school administrator and her father works as a hotel doorman in Times Square—wanted a different education for their daughter, who will start high school in September. Since the second half of her kindergarten year, Rodriguez has attended the Family Life Academy Charter School, a K-8 school in the South Bronx neighborhood of High Bridge that predominantly serves Hispanic students, many of them children of immigrants from Central and South America.

“I would have home-schooled her before sending her to our neighborhood schools,” says her mother, Catherine Rodriguez, now the director of operations for Family Life Academy. The senior Rodriguez, who was born in the American commonwealth of Puerto Rico and moved to New York at age 4, left college before earning a degree. Her husband went to work as soon as he graduated from high school.

At Family Life Academy, Alisa Rodriguez is somewhat unusual among her classmates. She’s one of just a few students of Puerto Rican background and, unlike nearly half her classmates, who began school knowing only Spanish, the teenager is a native English-speaker who understands more Spanish than she speaks. Her mother is bilingual.

“I don’t really use Spanish unless I see my grandparents,” she says. “My parents taught me when I was young, but I never used it, so I lost it.”

A self-described hard worker, she puts most of her energy into her mathematics and science courses because “they challenge me more and I like a challenge,” she says. She is a serious student now, but says that wasn’t the case until the demands of a teacher in 4th grade forced her to buckle down.

“She was a tough teacher, and she told us that if we didn’t work hard, we couldn’t reach our goals,” Rodriguez says. “She read us high-school-level books and showed us what we had to be able to do.”

Her 8th grade math teacher pushed her to overcome nervousness about speaking up in class.

“He brings me up to the front of the class because he knows I can do the work,” she says. “He really pushes me to excel.”

She’s confident that the high expectations and the courses she’s taken at her charter school have prepared her to do well at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in Manhattan, the competitive public high school where she will be a freshman in September.

Alisa Rodriguez will be the only student from her 8th grade class moving on to Columbia Secondary, and, she points out, the student enrollment is “a lot different” at her next school. Fewer Latino students are enrolled there, she says.

“I’m going alone, and that does make me a little nervous,” she says. “But the teachers there seem very close to the students, and I met one girl at the open house who is Puerto Rican and has the same last name as me. I call her my long-lost cousin. We’ve bonded already.”

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