All three girls admit it wasn’t easy. They recall sitting in class during their first year in America and not understanding what their teachers and classmates were saying. They remember being made fun of, but not really knowing why.
“Everyone spoke so fast and I guess we speak that fast now, too,” says Xaviera, the youngest of the three, who was accepted to Harvard earlier this month.
They turned to books for guidance. Their parents got the girls library cards and made reading mandatory — “Education is the most valuable asset,” the parents say repeatedly when we meet. The sisters were encouraged to read broadly, from “The Magic School Bus” to “ Harry Potter,” and they practiced English as a family in their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx’s Pelham Parkway neighborhood.
By the end of their first year at their local public schools, the girls had learned enough English to take the state exams, and were excelling in their classes. But their parents were alarmed that they were finishing their homework during the school day and coming home bored. They asked teachers to assign their daughters more homework. But even that wasn’t enough.
“Something was wrong,” Mr. de Paul Silatchom says. “I started looking for schools that would challenge them and keep them busy. At a school fair, we learned about Democracy Prep.”
At Democracy Prep, a public charter school in Harlem where I met them one recent afternoon, the day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Longer school days, many argue, allow teachers to spend more time on subjects other than math and English, and keep students out of trouble.