By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She was 13 when her family fled Cuba after Fidel Castro had taken her father's thriving dairy and sugar cane fields. She spoke no English when they arrived in Miami in 1962. Only after the U.S. government had helped relocate her family to Oklahoma City, where job prospects for immigrants were deemed better, did she begin to gain some degree of comfort and understanding of her new environment. Still, it was never easy. Yet she learned the language, graduated from high school, then Oklahoma City University. At the first school where she was hired as a Spanish teacher, her once financially successful father worked as the janitor. Her mother, a teacher in Cuba, had settled into a job as a seamstress for a local department store. "Still," their daughter says, "they were very proud of the fact they had become Americans."
Which is to say Paliotta, 55, was a well-qualified choice to coordinate the operation of the H-E-B school district's 3-year-old Welcome Center, an innovative academic and social oasis for immigrant families who have moved to the melting pot mid-cities. She's been where those who now knock on her door have been, knows their fears and uncertainties, their needs and frightening handicaps.
While virtually all schools, public and private, now have some form of testing and preparatory programs for non-English-speaking students coming into the educational system, the state grant-funded center, designed and watched over by Paliotta, takes a much broader approach. "We have a holistic mind-set here," she says. "In truth, we're social workers at heart. We want this place to be a nurturing safety net for the newly arrived." Thus, while the program's primary concern is to rapidly educate students, age 7 to 18, in the language of their new home, introduce them to the technical world of computers and familiarize them with social mores, it is only the beginning of the job taken on by Paliotta and her four-person staff. With the help of an expansive network of charities, business owners, doctors and the school district's PTA, the needs of entire immigrant families are addressed.
While their children receive English instruction from two teachers permanently assigned to the center, parents quickly learn that Paliotta and Diane Reyes, a native of Mexico who serves as the program's parent/community liaison, stand ready to help them settle into the community. "We try to make their transition as easy as possible," Reyes says. "We want them to know they can come here and feel comfortable. We've worked hard to make everyone aware that they can expect a non-judgmental atmosphere here. For many of the parents, this is a home away from home." It is also a place where they can seek help finding work, food, clothing, medical attention, spiritual guidance and even receive education themselves. Adult classes offered at the Welcome Center range from English to basic computer literacy to steps toward earning a GED.
"For the children to feel comfortable," Paliotta says, "it is important that the entire family is integrated into the community as quickly as possible."
It was in the late '90s, while working as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, that she approached Gene Buinger, superintendent of the H-E-B schools, with the idea of creating a center that would provide a variety of immigrant services under one roof. Buinger immediately embraced the idea, and in the summer of 2000 the school district received a $107,000 start-up grant from the state. Paliotta was named director.
Now, as a new school year begins, the endless mission continues. Children from all corners of the world will arrive, apprehensive and shy, to be taught. Paliotta points out that in the H-E-B school district, there are no less than 71 languages spoken by its students. Many children, she says, come from countries that don't even have the same alphabet used in English-speaking countries. "We had a class last year," she recalls, "that included three Koreans, two Chinese, one child from Nepal, one from Pakistan and one from Sudan."
The center's students often arrive here only after escaping the ravages of war and abject poverty. "In many cases," Reyes says, "the children's past lives are too horrible to even comprehend." She tells of a teen-age girl from Liberia who would not even speak when she first came to classes. "She had seen so many atrocities, so much death and suffering, that she was really psychologically wounded. Slowly, though, she began to feel better about her new home and new friends." Last spring, the girl graduated and is currently training to become a nurse.
The success stories, Paliotta unabashedly points out, are numerous. She tells of 16-year-old Paulina, who arrived with her ill mother and two younger sisters from Mexico. The teen-ager, with medical problems of her own, was solely responsible for the care of her family. It was, ultimately, the Welcome Center that not only arranged for doctor's care but persuaded Paulina to finish her education. She will graduate this year.