Javier Montanez, the principal of Leviton Dual Language School in Providence, interrupts a second grade class with a message in English. He then walks down the hall and delivers a similar message to a fifth grade class in Spanish. Both classrooms know what Montanez said because this is how education is delivered at Leviton – in equal parts English and Spanish.
“Our students learn two languages simultaneously, equally 50 percent of the time,” he explained. “So you take one lesson in English and the second unit is going to be in Spanish, or vice versa.”
Different than English as a Second Language or a bilingual education, dual language education doesn’t seek to transition students from Spanish to English, but rather to teach in both languages. It’s a model that fits well for the K through 5 elementary school situated between Cranston Street and Elmwood Avenue. More than 80 percent of students come from homes where Spanish is the primary language, Montanez said.
“Life taught me many lessons that books can’t teach”
In many ways, Montanez is the perfect principal for a dual language school in one of the poorest parts of the city. He’s highly educated. He has a masters’ degree from Rhode Island College and a doctorate from Johnson and Wales University, and he’s been teaching in Providence public schools for 23 years.
He’s also fluent in both Spanish and English, and has been speaking both languages his entire life.
“I was born as a dual language educator,” he said, only half joking. “I’m Puerto Rican so I’m bilingual, bi-cultural, bi-literate. I spoke a lot of Spanglish, broken English and broken Spanish.”
But it’s more than just a cultural and communication connection he can offer the students of Leviton. Perhaps no educator in Rhode Island had a harder time growing up and getting through school than did Montanez. He came from a broken home, riddled by drug abuse. He was homeless for three years, with no adult guardian, while attending Hope High School, where he first learned to read. Mayor Jorge Elorza, at his recent State of the City speech, lauded Montanez for overcoming so much adversity on his life.
“Life taught me many lessons that books can’t teach,” he said. “My life experiences tailored me to be able to do the work I do today.”
“I went to school because I could get two square meals”
Raised in Brooklyn, Montanez ran away from home when he was in elementary school after seeing his mother use heroin. He lived with his grandmother for a while, but that didn’t keep him far enough away from trouble. By middle school, he decided to try life with an older sister in Rhode Island.
“I got tired of being in gangs and drugs and everything that was around it,” he said. “I didn’t want to live that lifestyle anymore so I had a decision to make: do I continue to follow those footsteps or do I make a new trail for myself. I knew I had a sister here, in Rhode Island. I didn’t know where, I just knew she was in Rhode Island. So I decided I would leave that life behind me and move to Rhode Island.”
Things didn’t work out at his sister’s house either, but he found a community at Hope High School. So despite not having a home in Rhode Island, he stayed in school.
“I didn’t go to school because I was smart,” he said, “I went to school because I could get two square meals.”
He was homeless for three-and-a-half years while going to Hope High School. On the coldest nights, he broke into the school and slept in the boys locker room. Usually he slept in abandoned buildings or empty cars, often in public parks.
“My house was Roger Williams Park,” he said. “I could show you tree right next to the zoo, the only tree on the side of the zoo where the lake is, where the branches weep down, that was my house. In those days they didn’t let anyone sleep in the park, so I had to angle myself in a certain way and cover myself with leaves.”
Montanez was illiterate until he was a junior in high school. He was a stage hand in the drama program and was asked to read lines one day. “That’s when all the blocks started to come down,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
The drama teacher began teaching him to read after school. One day, he followed Montanez to Roger Williams Park and found his camp. Montanez thought he would be arrested for living there. “That was the day I dropped out of school,” he said.
“The question I started asking myself was ‘what if?'”
He moved back to Brooklyn, got married and had a son at age 18. “I found a job working at a factory,” he said, “I was making $98 a week.” Knowing this wouldn’t provide for his family, he decided to get his GED. Passing the test was a seminal moment for Montanez.
“That was actually the first time in my life that I believed I wasn’t dumb or stupid,” he said. “It was a breakthrough in my life that I’m not what people said I would be. The question I started asking myself was ‘what if?’ And the ‘what if’ turned into ‘what if I could get my Associates’ degree?'”
Three years later he had an bssociates’ degree and a Bachelors’ degree.
“Fear can do two things to you,” Montanez said. “Fear can imprison you in this room that we’re in right now or fear can make you bust down that door to see what’s on the other side. My fear was living the life I had been living so long and I didn’t want to stay in that room. There had to be something different on the other side of that door for me. So fear propelled me through that door to figure out ‘what if’. And every time I asked myself ‘what if’ I reached another accomplishment in my life. I bought into the notion that education was the way out.”
He became a substitute teacher in New York before landing a full-time job as a second grade bi-lingual teacher “at what was called Laurel Hill” and is now called Spaziano with the Providence Public School District.
After ten years of teaching in Rhode Island, “I believed that I could make a difference,” he said. “The higher up I could go the more the more changes I could make. I could affect 26 students in a classroom versus affecting 300 to 1,000 in a school. My mentality is how many people’s lives can I change while I’m here.”
“I teach them for life, I don’t just teach them to read and write”
First he got his masters’ degree from Rhode Island College, then a doctorate from Johnson and Wales University. Through it all, he says, the best ways he helps his students still has little to do with his many degrees.
“In order to gain their respect and their love you must show them respect and love,” Montanez said. “You must show them that you really care. Not artificially, you must show them that you really care. I can reach deep enough and far enough to pull you out of something that you are in at the same time I’m able to say let’s sit down and learn about this book.”
All too often, his own life story helps him make a difference in one of his students’ lives.
“I use my experience based on what they need – whether it is homelessness, whether it is drug addiction or alcoholism, whatever it may be I have something I can share that can alter and change their lives for the better,” Montanez said. “I teach them for life, I don’t just teach them to read and write.”