PILAR ALVAREZ Madrid

The first day of the new academic year at Madrid’s most diverse institution

The 280 students at Madrid’s Moreno Rosales school have 23 different nationalities

PILAR ALVAREZ Madrid

Seen from the outside, it looks like any other ramshackle house in a narrow Lavapies street, with its iron balcony, huge door and peeling walls. A century ago, it was a women’s religious school, but today it’s the Antonio Moreno Rosales public school, where statistics get flipped upside down.

On average, one in every 10 students in Madrid is foreign. In this building, not even one in 10 is Spanish, there being a total of 280 students with 23 different nationalities. It’s the school with the highest foreign population in the region, and as such, the first week of term sees an uphill struggle for those without the proper documentation, as well as efforts to sort out timetables, arrange for assistance in various languages and provide the new arrivals with necessary equipment. But the priority for most is to learn how to understand one another.

>> Day 1. Arfad’s first day. The grey door opens and a little boy runs from his mother and bolts up the stairs to the first floor. The teacher crouches down to welcome him. “What do you call him at home?” “Arrfad,” the mother answers, stretching out the “r.” Arfad Miha, three years old and from Bangladesh, looks around the classroom with bright eyes. While he runs around on the mat, which is made up of different letters of the alphabet, Angeles, his new teacher, explains to his mother that she has the wrong day. “No, Arfad is supposed to come in the Tuesday group – Tuuuuesday.” Now it is her turn to stretch out her words. The principal, Jose Manuel Laureiro, convenes an informal chat in the hall to repeat to the moms and dads that during the first week, the children will only come for an hour, and in groups. Another parent translates for those who can’t follow. “They thought we were throwing them out,” explains Laureiro. Every September, information is handed out in four languages – Spanish, Chinese, Bengali and Arabic – about lunch tickets and subsidies for school books. But plenty of other issues come up, and need to be resolved on the fly. A translator from the Regional Council’s Translation and Interpretation Service can take several weeks to arrive.

>> Day 2. “A very clever boy.” On the second day, little Arfad quickly lets go of the hand of his father as he arrives. Faruqu Miha smiles, saying: “He’s a very clever boy,” Starting school in Spanish at the age of three has its advantages. In just a few months, he’ll be bilingual. Things are more complicated the older the student is – especially if they arrive halfway through the term. “Here we take in new students as late as June,” says Laureiro. The school suffers as a result, failing tests organized by the regional government every year. But the principal brushes that off. “The important thing is the integration, and that is going very well. You’ll never see a fight here.”

>> Day 3. The rose. Arfad proudly shows off his rose in the classroom. The teacher hangs it up with the rest. Now he’s part of the school. A group of fourth-year students passes by the door with their teacher. They arc going on an excursion – around the building. He shows them the classrooms, with their photos and murals, and they drop in at the principal’s office to say hello. It’s a trip that costs nothing, just like all those offered at Moreno Rosales. There are families who would not be able to afford to pay for an excursion, and who also can’t afford books. That’s why there’s a system of subsidies and financial aid for those most in need – without papers there are no payouts, and 35 percent of the families don’t have their documentation in order.

>> Day 4. “O-la-nge.” “What color is this pencil?” “O-la-nge.” “Very good Yang, very good,” says Begona, the teacher. The Chinese girl buries her head on her notebook, marking off letters with a red and green pen. She’s just arrived in Spain, direct from Beijing. For the first week, she’ll be sharing a classroom with three Bangladeshis, two Chinese children and an Ecuadorian. As the term gets underway, the children that need the most help are put together, regardless of their age. “Later on we separate them,” explain Jose Luis, one of the three special-needs teachers.

>> Day 5. Arfad discovers Plasticine. Angeles, the teacher hands out something Arfad has never seen before. He has to squeeze it and twist it until it looks “like a churro.” Its Plasticine, a word the little Bangladeshi has never heard before. “They don’t learn a word a day, the teacher says, “but rather they absorb them, like babies do.” Arfad has 10 months of term ahead of him, time enough to “discover, experiment and enjoy himself” with his friends: Salma, from Morocco, who stopped crying today; Dominique, the Ecuadorian, whose mother takes pictures constantly; and Andrei, an energetic blond who explains everything in Romania. “They’ll get on just fine,” says Angeles. “They’ll learn to live with one another with no trace of racism. I wish the adults would learn something from them.”

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