the teacher project

At Manhattan International, an English learner teaches English learners

Students at East view footage from the protest at their school

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

The aim for the day was written in large, cursive letters on the blackboard: “What is poetry and how does it convey truth?”

Cinzia Bontempo, the 12th grade English teacher at Manhattan International High School, sat on the edge of her desk, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows. “What about music?” Bontempo asked her students. “Poetry is found in music all the time. Does anyone know any songs in English?”

“Imagine all the people,” one student belted out in a thick Dominican accent. Some of his classmates joined in, creating—just for a moment—a very international Beatles cover band.

“The things that I miss the most are the songs from my past,” Bontempo said before she smiled at her students, some nodding their heads in agreement.

Manhattan International serves more than 300 students who had lived in the United States for fewer than four years when they applied to the school. Students come from more than 50 countries and speaks more than 40 languages.

Bontempo knows what it’s like for them to be far from home. She moved to New York in 1998, leaving behind a successful 20-year career as a furrier in the Italian fashion industry. “I was the best I knew,” she said.

Born in Trieste, a seaport in northeast Italy, Bontempo lived the first 10 years of her life in a refugee camp built by Americans after World War II. The Yugoslavian People’s Army ran the camp after receiving authority over parts of Trieste from the Allied forces, until the border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975.

“Growing up in a border city was painful,” she said. It was in the refugee camp that Bontempo says she developed her interest in understanding racism and discrimination, which she often discusses in her English classes.

Back in New York City, Bontempo’s students can appreciate the power of borders. When she tells students her stories from childhood, they listen, rapt. “In previous years, I had students from Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, so they were very interested in that,” she said.

She began working with fur because she loved to sew and eventually started her own company. When animal rights activism made a career as a furrier untenable, she decided on a drastic change: to move to New York, learn English, and work in the travel industry.

It wasn’t until she took her first English classes at LaGuardia Community College that Bontempo realized that her heart was in learning and teaching languages.

“I loved to help my fellow students,” she said. “When I took my first travel business class, I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I’m not a businessperson.”

Instead, she worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English and education, and then went to Hunter College, where she got a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.

Bing, a 17-year-old student of Bontempo’s from China, said having a teacher who understands his struggle to learn English is helpful. “Because she’s good at English and because English is her second language, it tells us that we can do it too,” he said.

Now, Bontempo sees connections between her past life and her work in the classroom. The adrenaline required to work as a furrier in the months preceding Christmas is comparable to the feeling of having to correct 65 essays in less than a week, she said.

“As a furrier, you work like a dog for four months,” she said. “It is a skill that I have inside of me: that sense of urgency. I spend months teaching literature, and that takes time. But then I have to read all of this stuff, and then I have a deadline too.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.