Alma Galati, the longtime Rockville Centre district teacher who implemented...

Alma Galati, the longtime Rockville Centre district teacher who implemented one of the first ESL programs on Long Island, died on Jan. 31 at age 88. Credit: Susan Galati

Alma Galati was a lover of films and novels, a caring mother and an advocate for the Rockville Centre Hispanic community. But most of all, she was an educator.

Galati, who taught in the Rockville Centre school district for over three decades, helped the district implement and design its English as a Second Language program — one of the first ESL programs on Long Island — in 1966. She retired in 1998, but her impact on students and families continues.

She “had an intergenerational impact that can't be quantified,” said Nicolette Rodriguez, 32, a gastroenterology research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a former ESL student of Galati’s at Wilson Elementary School. “The downstream ripple effects that she had as an educator will be seen for decades to come. And I don't even think she knew the impact of her presence and her teaching.”

Galati, 88, died on Jan. 31 of a stroke and complications from COVID-19, according to her family. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past two decades.

Galati was born in Manhattan on Aug. 24, 1933, the youngest of two daughters of Isolina and Antonio Santana of Puerto Rico. After more than 12 years living in upper Manhattan, Galati and her family moved to Long Beach.

Alma Galati inherited a love for film from her mother, and spent most weekends of her adolescence at the local theater. Toward the end of her life, even while Alzheimer’s took many of her memories, she could still name the actors of whatever film was playing on Turner Classic Movies — a mainstay of her television screen by that time — and rattle off movie trivia acquired over so many years, said her daughter, Susan Galati, 60, of Baldwin. She could recite “The Godfather,” her favorite movie, “line for line,” recalled her son, Paul Galati, 63, of Rockville Centre.

Alma Galati developed her interest in education while at Long Beach High School, where she was the lead drum majorette and known for her flaming baton.

“Even in high school, people looked up to people like Alma,” said former state Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg, 88, her high school sweetheart and lifelong friend.

After graduating from high school in 1951, Galati earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from what was Cortland State Teachers College. She taught for two years in the Valley Stream school district before marrying and taking time off to start her family. At age 55, she earned a master’s in education from Hofstra University.

Galati, who grew up speaking Spanish at home, joined the Rockville Centre district in 1966 as the ESL program’s first teacher hire. Over the next three decades, she would teach ESL and kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as help then-Superintendent William J. Leary implement the district's desegregation. Against the backdrop of neighbors who “fought tooth and nail” against desegregation during those early years, Galati became a fierce advocate for her students, Susan Galati said, particularly her Hispanic ESL students.

“To see these kids be able to excel, and to be accepted and mainstreamed into a regular classroom so that they weren't treated like lepers anymore” — that was what drove Galati’s love for teaching, the daughter said.

Alma Galati was devoted to her students. She at times paid for school supplies and classroom decorations out of her own pocket, and she made home visits multiple times a week to provide updates and encourage parents to play an active role in their children’s education.

“She always told us half of her job was acting, to get kids involved,” Susan Galati said.

For Rodriguez, who was in kindergarten when she first began learning English in school, Alma Galati was “not only a teacher who gave me foundational language skills, but … she was truly a cultural and linguistic liaison between her students, families and the school system.”

Rodriguez, a first-generation English speaker, recalled Galati playing a “quintessential role” in helping her adapt as she entered the school system.

Galati’s ability to connect with families through her personal understanding of Latinx culture and her capacity to communicate with parents in their native tongue made her a unique advocate for her students and a trusted figure in the community — a touchstone for immigrant families as they navigated a new language, culture and environment, Rodriguez said.

In the classroom, Galati, who Rodriguez remembers as always sporting bright lipstick and a short, curly haircut, never failed to push her students while reassuring them that they were good enough.

“Especially when you're coming from a home where English may not be the predominant language, there's always this fear of being the ‘other,’ ” she said. But Galati “made learning easy, and that also made learning comfortable.”

She “taught me to be comfortable in my own skin, and to appreciate my heritage and the family I come from and who I am as a person,” Rodriguez said. “For first-generation kids, for people who are learning English — I think that has more impact than I could ever say.”

Beyond language skills, Galati’s embodiment of warmth, approachability and support served as another lesson that Rodriguez, who went on to win the Gates Millennium Scholarship and earn degrees from Brown University, carries with her today as a physician when she connects with Spanish-speaking and first-generation patients.

Galati brought her values as an educator home, too. Growing up, Susan Galati remembers reading multiple newspapers a day. Alma Galati would tell her children that it was important to get their news from multiple sources in order to obtain a full picture and be equipped to form their own conclusions about current events.

Paul Galati said he experienced “the best part” of his mother’s impact as a teacher when he saw her students return to embrace and speak with her years later as adults with children and careers of their own.

“She was such a great mom that taking care of her in the end was not a burden. Because she was the best,” said Susan Galati, who lived with and acted as her mother’s primary caregiver for nearly a decade when her condition began to deteriorate from Alzheimer’s. “She was my best friend.”

Galati was cremated on Feb. 2. Besides her daughter and son, she is survived by her grandson, Charles, of Rockville Centre. Her family plans to hold a celebration of her life this summer.

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