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Bronx Students to Paris: Here We Come!

Thursday, November 10, 2011 - 04:31 PM

More than two dozen 9- and 10-year-olds and their parents crowded into a kindergarten classroom, some of them sitting in tiny chairs, some of them standing, gawking at a screen displaying pictures of the "Mona Lisa" and the outside of the house where Anne Frank hid in Amsterdam.

The 29 fifth graders and three sixth graders, students at Public School 86 in Kingsbridge Heights, the Bronx, are going on a 10-day trip to Europe beginning Friday, and the parents came to the school this week to hear last-minute details of the journey.

The students will fly first to Paris, take a train to Amsterdam and then take a day trip to Brussels before returning home. For many of the students in this struggling neighborhood, it will be the first time they will be away from home for that long, as well as the first time they will have left the country.

"Will they be able to communicate with us every day?" one mother asked in Spanish.

Yes, said one of the teachers who is going on the trip, Mary Paranac, while another teacher, Yesenia Peña, translated the answer into Spanish. Each chaperon teacher would let the students call home every night to check in with parents briefly, they said.

"What if our parents don’t answer?" asked one student. The teachers assured him he would be allowed to leave a message and make another call later.

The school, with almost 1,800 students in Pre-K through sixth grades, is about 85 percent Hispanic, and many of the students are children of immigrants. The principal, Sheldon Benardo, said students had made trips abroad for several years — last year they went to Japan — because he thinks the trips benefit students and teachers. For the last five years, the school has scored on A on its progress report card.

"Many of the parents couldn’t afford this or have the wherewithal to pull it off," he said about the trips. "t’s also such a unifying force for the staff. There’s a synergy and companionship that develops among and between staff members. It makes our staff stronger."

The first long trip the school made with students was in 2001, when 24 students in the school chorus accompanied their teacher to her homeland in the Aland Islands of Finland.

Recently, there was a trip to Wyoming.

One mother, Magnolia Tavarez, said she was almost as excited about the trip as her daughter, Hannah Lothian, 10, a fifth grader.

"It’s a wonderful opportunity for her," Ms. Tavarez said. "She’s never been on a trip like this. I’m so confident that she will be in the best hands, because this is such a great school. Everyone is like family here."

Ms. Paranac, who teaches fifth grade, said planning the trip brought the staff together. She also said the decision about which students would attend sorted itself out.

"It ends up being a self-selecting group," she said. "The trip happens so fast by the time you set the requirements, and the money, the passports, and the parent’s willingness to send their kids, I didn’t have to say no to anyone."

Mr. Benardo said the trip costs $450 a student, with some of the costs covered by fund-raising and scholarships. Some students pay nothing.

Another teacher, Hallie Fox, said the students had worked all school year to learn about the history and culture of the places they would visit. In Paris, they will go to the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. In Amsterdam, they will visit the house where Anne Frank's family hid. They will also visit children their age at a school in Paris.

"Of course we feel completely accountable for the kids," Ms. Fox said. "Our responsibility is for their safety, No. 1, but also for their education. We want to make sure they’re getting an educational opportunity that really could not be compared to what they’re getting in the classroom."

She said she accompanied the students on the trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., which included a 10-mile hike in Grand Teton National Park.

"I think the students really grow up a lot," she said. "You start to see students who really mature while they’re away and traveling and being exposed to new things."

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