Photo: Danielle Betancourt, the new principal at the Butler Elementary School in Belmont
In a recent interview on NPR, Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, said the United States since 9-11 – the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC is next week – “[has] grown aware not only of the danger of terrorism but also of the reality that their nation is far less white, Christian and European than it used to be.”
“These [immigrant] movements are not things that are somehow going to be stopped, and everyone sent home,” Eck said in the interview. “This is part of the natural evolution of who we are as America.”
“Diversity is now our destiny.”
That future can be seen in Belmont with a visit to the Butler Elementary School on White Street in the town’s Waverley neighborhood. Within the walls of the century-old building (built when immigrants from Ireland and Italy were moving into the area) are students from two dozen countries speaking more than 35 different languages and dialects.
And on the opening day of the school year in Belmont, Wednesday, Sept. 7, students and parents welcomed Danielle Betancourt as the Butler’s new principal.
Named in June to replace Michael McAllister (who moved to lead the Chenery Middle School) Betancourt knows what it’s like living in a new land and learning to speak a language not her own.
Betancourt lived with her family around the world, including three years in Moscow, Philadelphia, London for five years and in Massachusetts for the past 12 years. She was involved with a PTA at a primary school in England with her two sons (her oldest is finishing his degree at Georgetown while the youngest is starting his freshman year at UC San Diego), serving as co-president of the Wharton Kids Club in Philadelphia, and teaching at the Samantha School for English in Russia.
Betancourt matriculated at Fordham University where she was received a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Studies, a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Boston College, and a Master’s of Education in Organizational Management from Endicott College.
Betancourt most recent position was as a vice principal at the Brophy Elementary in Framingham, after spending an 18-month principal internship at the Horace Mann Elementary School in Newton, where she has been a teacher in a full-inclusion classroom since 2011. Before the Mann, she served as an elementary teacher in the Boston Public Schools including as a first-grade teacher at the John Winthrop Elementary School in Dorchester.
The Belmontonian caught up with Betancourt as she attended a Butler PTA pre-school year picnic for kindergarteners and new students to the school at Pequossette Park on Aug. 31.
Q: The Butler is the most heterogeneous school population in Belmont with children coming from Russia, Nepal, South America and many regions in Asia. Does your history of living around the world give you an insight on the travails these families face?
A: I hope it helps since I understand what it is not only to live in other places but to transition your family in a new country. I’ve met families here who are coming from abroad with their kids, and I understand what it’s like to have the school as your “home base” where you make a community and friends, and that’s important.
Q: What languages do you speak?
A: I speak English, and I have exposure and experience with Russian, Italian and Spanish. I enjoy learning new languages because it’s the way we connect with one another. Sometimes, it’s just a few key phrases so I can reach out to others. I just met students the other day who were coming from another country. They didn’t speak any English, so I started to talk to them in their language. Right off, they felt a little bit more at ease and connected, and that’s so important in a new environment.
Q: What is your philosophy as an educator?
A: What I believe is that every child is to be known and challenged and that each one can learn and achieve and be successful. So it’s incumbent on everyone in the school community to make sure that each child succeeds. That will mean understanding the real difficulties for students and teachers when transitioning into English and becoming proficient.
Q: As this is your first principal position, what is your expectations at the Butler?
A: This first year is for me to learn from the staff and to appreciate what has been accomplished. What’s exciting is having worked in several different kinds of districts – urban and suburban – I can … take what I have learned and add it to my repertoire and apply it here at the Butler. It’s like the concept of cross-pollination. That’s why it’s important to have diversity in that respect. So this year it’s about learning and building relationships with the community and the kids.
Q: So, is it an exciting time for you?.
A: Very exciting. I keep pitching myself. It’s such a wonderful opportunity.