What does a principal do if parents do not come in to meet him and talk to the teachers?
Last year Laury Binney, principal of the Oak Bluffs elementary school, decided to go to the parents. And in his case that meant taking an unpaid sabbatical year and traveling to Brazil, including an extended visit to the two towns where most of the Island Brazilians hail from.
His trip provided a small window into the Brazilian community on the Island, which is well established but little known or understood.
When Mr. Binney arrived at the Oak Bluffs School in 1996, one year after a new $13 million building off Tradewinds Road opened, the school had no Brazilian students. Today, between 10 and 12 per cent of the school’s 411 students are Brazilian.
“Parents of the Brazilian kids aren’t coming in as much [as other parents], if at all,” Mr. Binney said. He said a language barrier is the main problem. Only two teachers at the Oak Bluffs school speak any Portuguese. A Massachusetts law which required that a teacher be available to instruct students in their native tongue once the population hit a certain percentage was repealed a few years ago. Today, non-English speaking students can receive instruction in their native language for a maximum of one year.
“I think it’s inherently unfair,” Mr. Binney said. He said sometime parents stay away out of fear the school will report them if they are not living here legally. Whatever the reason, Mr. Binney decided he wanted to try to bridge the gap. “We want that community to come in and be a part of our community here,” he said in an interview last week from his office.
The school halls were empty — the first day of classes is Thursday — but his office was buzzing with activity. It was a nice welcome back for Mr. Binney, who left the Island for Brazil last October with his wife, West Tisbury school reading teacher Marcy Klapper.
The two began their trip with four and a half weeks of language school in a small beach town near the equator. From there they traveled south, to the major cities of Salvador, Bahia and Vittoria. “It’s important to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, especially when it relates so strongly to who lives on this Island,” he said. Along the way, they visited 15 schools to see firsthand the classrooms where many of their students came from.
“The educational system is very different there than it is here,” he said. “It is divided by class, which in some sense it is here too, but here, you can work your way out. There, if you’re poor, you’re going to public school with overcrowded classes, bad infrastructure, a lack of resources. If you’re rich, you’re going to private school. The private schools have class sizes of around nine to 12 kids, state-of-the-art equipment and they all have English classes.”
He said Brazilian public schools typically do not teach English and teachers there are paid the equivalent of $300 a week.
Mr. Binney and Ms. Klapper filmed their school visits on a video camera. They also took their camera to Mantenopolis and Cupuraque, two rural, hillside towns where the majority of the Island Brazilians emigrate from. “About 60 to 80 per cent of Island Brazilians come from these towns,” Mr. Binney said. Brazilians living on the Vineyard directed the couple to the two towns.
He said both towns are agrarian and small, with populations around 10,000. “It’s very rural, very simple. Dirt streets. There’s not much in the way of natural resources,” Mr. Binney said. “The first thing that happened when we stepped out of the car was we saw a guy walking down the street in a Black Dog shirt. Everyone there had either been to the Vineyard or had relatives working here.”
The couple spent time with the residents, including the grandparents of one of Mr. Binney’s students. “They fed us, they took us to their farms and put us up,” he said. Among other things, he said he came away with a better understanding of the typical path from Brazil to the Vineyard and back. He said the Brazilians who come to the Vineyard usually enter the United States by crossing the Mexican border into Texas. They then take public transportation to the Island, where they find work. They stay for between three and five years and then return home, he said.
“The first thing they do [when they return to Brazil] is build a house,” he continued. “They call them their Vineyard houses. When you walk around it’s like, ‘This is a Mantenopolis house, this is a Vineyard house. This is a Mantenopolis house, this is a Vineyard house.’ It goes shack, house, shack, house.” Leftover money goes into opening a business like a bakery or a pharmacy, he said.
While there, Mr. Binney also met many Brazilians who never made it past Texas. He met a young woman who made it all the way to the Vineyard, stayed for a week and was arrested for immigrating illegally. She was held in prison in Plymouth for three months. Nevertheless, for the most part he found the feedback on the Vineyard was overwhelmingly positive. “The common refrain was, ‘You from Martha’s Vineyard? Martha’s Vineyard I love,’ ” Mr. Binney said.
In May, Mr. Binney and Ms. Klapper returned to the Vineyard, refreshed from their experiences and eager share what they had seen. Mr. Binney spent the summer at his computer, editing hours of footage into a 12-minute documentary he will show to the all-Island school committee at a meeting on Sept. 22.
And this fall the Oak Bluffs School will host Portuguese language classes twice a night for adults in the community. The classes will be free and no registration is required.
Mr. Binney said he hopes the classes will act as a bridge, encouraging more Brazilian and nonBrazilian parents to participate in school meetings and parent teacher conferences.
And this week, when Mr. Binney hosts his annual back-to-school backyard barbecue for the staff, he plans to cook up a classic Brazilian meal. “It’s sharing somebody’s culture because they’re here and we’re here,” he said.
Among the Brazilian community, Mr. Binney and Ms. Klapper have already earned something of a reputation, or so he’s heard. “Everyone is talking about those two people who went to our two towns,” Mr. Binney said. “And we want to nurture that somehow. This is a kind and giving community. We want them to become a part of who we are here.”