Human language

A Ukrainian school in New York takes on a big mission

This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important education news in the United States. Sign up here to receive this newsletter in your inbox.

Today: Ukrainian language schools have become a lifeline for diaspora children and parents. And the pandemic has created a national reading crisis, especially among young children.

More than 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since last month, according to the UN. For children trapped in the horror of the sustained Russian attack, learning, at least in the classroom, is on pause.

But children from Ukraine’s greater diaspora — immigrants or with close family ties — experience a split-screen reality.

In the United States, they go to school. They learn trigonometry or photosynthesis. They Lunch. They talk to friends who may have barely heard of the war. Then they go home, to their parents who are constantly checking on their loved ones, glued to the news.

For these families, Ukrainian schools, usually held on Saturdays, have become more than just learning the language. They help children understand where they come from – a task that seems more urgent than ever.

“The world gets it, but it doesn’t get it the way a Ukrainian would get it,” said Ivan Makar, director of the Self-Reliance Saturday School of Ukrainian Studies in Manhattan. “It’s our culture, it’s our people, it’s our tradition, it’s our language. It’s our everything.

The school, located in Manhattan’s East Village, opened in 1949. Today, the schools offer Ukrainian language and culture lessons to approximately 225 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. Students learn Ukrainian geography, history and literature.

“In peacetime, you don’t always know why it was important,” said Daria Melnyk, a Ukrainian American with two children at school. She added that now, “the consistency and stability of going to Ukrainian school and reinforcing that at home gives us a way to respond in a time of crisis.”

In the two Saturdays since the war began, the school has rallied in a message of unity, trying to help students understand the invasion. The teachers held an assembly and the children dressed in traditional embroidered shirts, wearing blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of the flag.

Children come to school on Saturdays “so you know who you are,” Makar said. “So people can never tell you something different. So that you know there is a language.

For parents, school is a respite. Many are worried about their family members still in Ukraine. Others are encouraged that their children are deepening their ties to Ukraine, despite the invasion.

“In some ways, nothing has really changed,” Melnyk said. “We still speak Ukrainian at home, we go to Ukrainian school, but it seems bigger.”

Melnyk and her husband have never taken their children to Ukraine – they are 6 and 7 and have only recently been vaccinated – but hope to one day.

“When we made the choice to make Ukrainian our home language, it was more about honoring our past,” Melynk said. “I think it’s now about imagining a future. And I mean that literally. We don’t know how this will end. »

Last year’s kindergarten crisis, when millions of 5-year-olds spent months outside of classrooms, has become this year’s reading emergency.

As the pandemic enters its third year, a group of New studies show that around a third of children in the youngest grades lack reading cues, up significantly from before the pandemic. In Virginia, a study found that early reading skills had been at an “alarming” level for 20 years this fall.

And while children of all demographics have been affected, black and Hispanic children, as well as those from low-income families, those with disabilities and those who are not fluent in English, are being left behind the most.

“Reading is the cornerstone of human knowledge,” my colleague Dana Goldstein, who covers education, told the Coronavirus Briefing newsletter. “That’s the primary purpose of primary education in many ways.”

Despite the political controversies over masks, there is not yet strong evidence that they have hindered the development of reading skills.

Instead, the pandemic appears to have compounded a national failure to teach children to read: In 2019, national and international exams showed stagnant or declining performance for American students in reading, and growing gaps between students the most efficient and the least efficient.

Nearly half of public schools also have teaching vacancies, and many schools lack educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness – the foundational skill that links spoken English to the letters that appear on the page. .

And the kids also spent months out of the classroom. Even though they had an internet connection, they struggled to learn the basics of reading without explicit, hands-on instruction.

“Reading at home is really important for sparking interest and motivation to read,” Dana said, “but many children need much more explicit instruction to learn to read — more than parents can. provide.”

In other virus news:

  • New York public schools have dropped mask requirements and students are having mixed reactions.

  • Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring masks on March 14.


  • The University of California, Berkeley will have to freeze enrollment at 2020-21 levels, after the state Supreme Court upheld a ruling.

  • A state judge in California fined a for-profit online university and its former $22 million parent company, claiming they were misleading students.

  • Lives Lived: Autherine Lucy Foster was the first black student at the University of Alabama. Less than three weeks before his death at age 92, the school renamed a building in his honor.

Books and politics

  • Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa signed a law ban transgender women and girls to play on girls’ sports teams in high school and to compete in women’s track and field competitions.

  • Florida school students out of class to protest the state legislature’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban teachers from talking about sexuality and gender identity with younger students.

  • New Mexico will focus more on conversations about race and ethnicityas well as Native American history, in the new state educational standards.

  • A good read: The fight for “Maus” is just the tip of the iceberg in Tennessee’s education wars.

And the rest …

  • Minneapolis teachers went on strike yesterday after contract talks broke down, closing classrooms for about 30,000 public school students.

  • A 15-year-old boy died a shooting in front of a school in Iowa. The police arrested six teenagers.

You might be interested in this week’s episode of “The Argument,” a Times social debates podcast, where two leading health experts discuss this new phase of the pandemic. Throughout the conversation, they discuss a way forward to reduce restrictions in schools.

Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of health at Indiana University and a regular contributor to The Times, pointed out that children routinely socialize outside of the classroom. “We focus on school because that’s what we can control, but I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that says school is the most dangerous thing kids do all day. day,” he said.

He also said vaccinations could be a golden calf. Many parents don’t line up to get their children vaccinated, so there’s little evidence to suggest opening up vaccines to even younger children will have much effect.

“We can see that the percentages of children who have been vaccinated so far are already low,” he said. “Without mandates, we don’t get very high vaccination levels in general.”

That’s just part of the big conversation. I highly recommend a listen!

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