Before Gil Bernardino founded Circulo de la Hispanidad 35 years ago, he was a teacher who noticed Spanish-speaking students often did not make it to high school graduation.
"It was like everybody that I met was a dropout," said Bernardino, 67, who had come from Spain in 1974 and taught in Long Beach and Brooklyn. He said he saw the way proper educational support could improve a child's life and community, especially when the students were learning English as a second language. He left his teaching career and pension behind and launched the social service organization with $65,000 in grant money.
Now Circulo offers 20 programs open to all who need them, ranging from classes in computer skills to domestic violence and HIV/AIDS advocacy, at locations in Long Beach and Hempstead.
In 2008, Bernardino co-founded the Evergreen Charter School in Hempstead, which now has 300 students and a waiting list. Language arts test scores at the school have outperformed Hempstead public schools.
In 2010, Circulo built a community center that is LEED gold certified (a green building rating). Why the emphasis on environmentally friendly construction?
We breathe better inside the building than outside. Nothing inside or in the construction is damaging, not the glues or the materials. They gave us the gold medal. My thinking is that we are destroying our own planet. I wanted to live in a community that would inspire our people, our professionals, our children.
What's a common misperception about Circulo?
That we serve only the Spanish[-speaking] population.
Why was it important to you to offer HIV/AIDS services?
Many years ago, I had a family member who passed away in New York City. Then I realized AIDS was not only in New York City but also in Long Beach and also affecting the Hispanic community.
Why do you believe education is so important?
Education and training is the key for permanent employment, and the best support that we can give to our community as far as future economic development.
What's the key to getting school graduation rates to rise?
You need to have much more personnel, more staff members to support the children in the school system . . . Many come from illiterate households. The immigrant population is in their survival stage, they work odd hours, 15 hours, in many cases for $7 an hour . . . When the spring comes many of our students leave us because they are working in gardens. And why not have Spanish [-speaking] teachers teaching other subjects? Our children need to see the same kind of role model that other students have.
Why does Evergreen Charter feed students breakfast and lunch?
There are a large percentage of [Latinos] with obesity and diabetes. Because [fast food] places are cheap, our communities eat a lot of this kind of food that really destroys their lives. If a child eats this kind of food in the morning, after an hour and a half in the classroom, their concentration is gone because the brain needs more than sugar.
What's something else you do to support students, especially those for whom English is a second language?
We have hired a lot of teachers to support those children and we have classes on Saturdays. We open our school on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
What happens when Spanish-speaking students are placed in English-speaking classrooms without support?
It is the philosophy that you put the baby in the swimming pool and maybe he'll come out alive or maybe not, with no plans. It's not good for the country, for the state, for the region when you have so many dropouts, such a high percentage of students really not coming out of high school prepared. This is not a question about [Hispanics] or African-Americans or the white poor, it's a question of how do we want to see our region's economic development.
NAME: Gil Bernardino, founder and executive director, Circulo de la Hispanidad in Long Beach
WHAT IT DOES: Social services organization providing food, education, shelter, advocacy, education and youth programs
EMPLOYEES: 25 full time; 15 part time
BUDGET: $2.6 million