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For English Learner Turned Ivy-Leaguer, Public School Teachers Made the Difference

On the morning of their promotion to middle school, fifth-grade girls from the Walsh School in Waterbury had a special visitor.

Sharing her story as an immigrant and English learner, Georbina DaRosa answers questions from fifth-grade girls at Waterbury’s Walsh Elementary.

About to embark on a promotion of her own—starting on her master’s degree at an Ivy League school—Georbina DaRosa had also once been a fifth-grader at Walsh, back in 2006. Like many of the girls she would now be speaking to, she had struggled as a child and faced incredible odds. With help from her teachers, she beat the odds and dispelled many myths—about immigrants, about ethnic minorities and females, and about public schools—every step of the way.

One of us

DaRosa was eight when her family immigrated to the U.S. from Cape Verde, a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, where the primary language is Portuguese-based Cape Verdean Creole. On her first day of school, DaRosa—a third-grader at Walsh—spoke no English.

“When Georbina first got here, she struggled with the sounds of the language,” said veteran EL teacher Linda Strange, who worked with DaRosa 11 years ago and continues teaching Walsh students today. Strange told current Walsh students, “Georbina knows just what it feels like to be a fifth-grade girl at Walsh because she was one. She used to live on Rose Street.”

Giving back

DaRosa eventually earned a scholarship and a degree in psychology and human development from Connecticut College in 2017, the first generation in her family to attend college. She was then accepted to Columbia University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

“Georbina shows how strong Connecticut’s public schools can be, and how students in inner-city public schools—with the right support and resources—can truly succeed,” says Strange. “Her story is a compelling success story for Connecticut public schools. It’s a story of teachers who go beyond to give their students a better chance.”

DeRosa stays in touch with her teachers, who made a profound difference in her life. Here she catches up with longtime CEA members, EL teacher Linda Strange and PE teacher Ken Yaffe.

DaRosa has now returned twice to Walsh school to talk to fifth-grade girls.

“Mrs. Strange was my teacher and my mentor,” DaRosa told the students. Strange took DaRosa to events that were difficult for her parents to get to and eventually took her on college tours and attended her naturalization ceremony (in high school) as well as her college graduation.

Teachers make it happen

DaRosa’s family later moved to Bridgeport, where she finished high school, graduating second in her class of 300.

“When we moved to Bridgeport,” she recalls, “there was no funding for the schools. We had our biology class in the math classroom. There was no lab. Many of my peers were not college bound, and with girls, there was a lot of drama and fighting. But teachers made the difference. They were so supportive. Like my mother, they helped me understand that education is important and something no one can take away from you. It builds your self-esteem.”

She adds, “It’s important for girls to know they can do great things. A lot of kids at Bridgeport’s Harding High School thought, ‘This is it for me. This will be my whole life.’ They didn’t always know there’s a whole world outside for them. But our teachers were willing and able to support us. My biology teacher, Mrs. Benard, was one of my hardest teachers. She made sure she put me to work—as did my chemistry teacher, Mr. Vincent. Regardless of our circumstances, or theirs, our teachers believed in us and cared about us.”

“Certainly, Georbina’s story is a story of her own individual success,” says Strange, “but it is also the story of the support she received along the way, both in schools here in Waterbury and in Bridgeport. We think her story is an inspiration for our students.”

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