NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — The teacher peppered her four students with questions.
‘‘What day is it? What day is tomorrow? Yesterday?’’ she'd ask each of the students, girls between 7 and 14-years-old, in turn.
The girls answered the teacher’s questions without reverting to English, their responses punctuated by the instructor saying ‘‘dobry’’ — Polish for ‘‘good’’ — and moving on to the next lesson.
‘‘Even though (the students) speak Polish at home, it’s difficult to teach the grammar, the writing,’’ said Renata Morrison, principal of the Polish School of New Bedford, while she walked a reporter through the halls of Holy Family-Holy Name School, where Polish is the language of instruction Saturday mornings. ‘‘We don’t make money on this, it’s just to help our children become fluent in a second language, their native language.’’
The Polish School of New Bedford took in its first students last March after a group of parents banded together in search of a way to keep their native culture alive, said Morrison, herself a Polish immigrant. The nonprofit school holds classes at Holy Family-Holy Name on Saturday mornings and $50 buys a month of classes, she added.
As new ethnic groups like the Portuguese moved into New Bedford’s packed tenement neighborhoods, the Polish found themselves pushed farther and farther into suburbia, their culture and language fading as a generation of their children attended public schools.
A large, sometimes heavily Americanized, second- and third-generation Polish community remains, however, in addition to a handful of new immigrants, Morrison said.
The school currently has 20 students, ranging from 4 to 15 years old, in two classes, one for kids 4 to 7 and another for the older pupils. The curriculum, based partly on a similar Polish school in Centerville on Cape Cod and another in the Boston area, was designed by Morrison, who handled most of the planning leading up to the first day of classes last March, she said.
The school has room for more students of any age, and Polish proficiency is not a requirement. Morrison said students have come to the school without any knowledge of the language, such as a couple Polish-descended adult learners hoping to find some relatives in the old country they had never met, she said.
The Rev. Marek Chmurski, pastor of nearby St. Lawrence Martyr Church and of Holy Family-Holy Name, provided classroom space, calling the school a ‘‘positive effort’’ for the minority community.
‘‘The situation is that, whenever there is a Polish priest, they’’ attend church where he is, Chmurski said.
Parents drove the school’s creation, she said, and finding the school usually comes from word of mouth.
‘‘I found out about it through a friend, that’s how it is with minorities,’’ said Darius Kostrzewa, a Polish immigrant and doctor living in Wakefield, R.I., who enrolled two of his children because keeping them bilingual can be difficult once they start public school. ‘‘It’s tough. ... We’re a small group, in the old days there were more (Polish people). Once they go to school, English is such an easy language.’’
Finding the teachers was by word of mouth as well, Morrison said. The school currently has two instructors, Weronika Powers, who also teaches at the Centerville school, for the older students, and Monika Gdanska, a preschool teacher by day who handles the younger students.
English is forbidden throughout the three-hour lessons, Polish is both the language of instruction and conversation, Morrison said.
The rigorous courses are worth it as the world continues to grow smaller and smaller, at once threatening to push youths away from their roots but requiring them to become more familiar with the world outside their neighborhood than ever before, Morrison said.
‘‘I know I want my daughter to speak Polish, to know where she’s coming from,’’ Morrison said. ‘‘Right now the world is open. Having the ability to speak English and Polish means the door is open wider.’’