Categorized | Featured, Filipino, Queens

A Filipino School in Woodside


Young Filipino-Americans learn about their culture and heritage in Queens.

Students dance and sing to a song in Tagalog. Credit: NASTASIA BOULOS

Three kids sit around a table in a small room in Woodside, Queens, on a blistering cold Saturday. They listen as their teacher points to her mouth. “What is this called?” she asks. “Mouth!” they respond. “Ok now in Tagalog, that’s bibig. Can you say ‘bi-big’?” she asks. “Bi-big,” they respond.

The students are taking part in an eight-week Filipino cultural program for children at the Filipino School of New York & New Jersey – a school established to teach Filipino Americans about their culture and heritage. The class, in its sixth week, meets every other Saturday for an hour and a half in Woodside and teaches kids basic Tagalog, as well as Filipino cuisine and traditions.

Noel DeGuzman drives down from Connecticut every Saturday and watches as his son Rico, 6, and daughter Nina, 4, repeat Tagalog words. “It’s hard to find other Filipino Americans where we live,” he says. “I bring them here so they can spend time with other Fil-Ams and be exposed to the culture.”

The focus today is learning body parts in Tagalog. The teacher has brought in sheets with pictures of the body parts. Together the kids go through them, one by one, first spelling the words in English, then in Tagalog. At the end the students cut them out and take them home as flashcards to practice the words that they’ve learned.

“Culturally, it’s important to at least give them this and then in the future maybe we can go to the Philippines,” says Joan Guerrero, a second-generation Filipino American, who brings her son to class as often as possible. “It’s important for them since we still have family there.”

The Filipino School was founded by Venessa Menzano, who as a child, attended Iskwelahang Pilipino in Boston, the oldest Filipino cultural school in the United States (it was founded in 1976). “My brother and I went every other weekend, from September to June, for three years,” she says. Classes there taught about Filipino language, history and tradition. Though Menzano was already fluent in Tagalog, she says she enjoyed attending. “It was fun because I got to meet other Filipino students like me,” she says.

Menzano grew older and moved to New York and began thinking about having kids of her own. It was then that she realized there was no cultural school for Filipinos in the area. “There are Chinese schools, Korean schools, but there was nothing dedicated to teaching Filipino culture,” she says.

So Menzano, who says she speaks “taglish,” a mixture of English and Tagalog, to her 3-year-old son, founded the Filipino School in 2008. It doesn’t have a permanent home, but instead rents class spaces in communities that it wants to target. The school is funded through a combination of fees and individual donations, and Menzano, who is also the development director at the Columbia University Medical Center, invests a lot of her own money, as well. The children’s language and culture program runs every other week and costs $25 per class, or $185 for the entire program. The school has organized cultural programs in various communities with a large population of Filipinos –including a summer dance program in Jersey City and an adult language class with an NYU professor.

“My favorite part is when kids come back and remember the words they’ve learned,” Menzano says. In a Filipino martial arts class (organized as part as the eight-week program), for example, one kid was counting out loud in Tagalog. “I also get to learn a lot myself when I’m researching for lesson plans,” she says.

Menzano hopes to eventually hire more teachers to expand the school. In the spring of 2013, it will offer a Philippine cultural dance program and adult conversational Tagalog course.

In a corner, 4-year-old Nina sits on the floor and watches as Menzano sings and dances to a Tagalog version of “head, shoulders, knees and toes.” But for 6-year-old Rico, this is serious business. He focuses intently as he tries to mimic the movements and repeat the words. Minutes later, though Menzano herself has stopped, he is still singing in a language he has just begun learning.


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