Dealing with diversity

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Two years ago Alex Tapia-Moravi knew how to say “hello” and a few colors in English. That was it.

Tapia-Moravi is from Lima, Peru and is now a fourth-grader at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax City. He has qualified for the gifted and talented program and wants to be a photographer when he grows up because with pictures, “Sometimes I can’t explain things how I want, but I can show them.”

Tapia-Moravi was persistent in class, always asking questions, overcoming that quiet first year of his in the U.S.

“Now I can understand people, though, talk and do things and use a computer,” he said.

One in three Fairfax County students speaks another language than English. According to the 2000 Census, 270,000 documented county residents spoke another language, increasing to more than 300,000 residents in 2006.

The sizes of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes in the county are getting bigger and the languages are becoming more diverse.

The need for county services extends beyond the students. Back to school nights at some county schools are beginning to look like informal gatherings of the United Nations, with translators quietly speaking into microphones that feed into parents’ headsets.

When parents of county students don’t speak English, phone messages from school are delivered to them in their native tongue, be it Spanish, Hindi or Macedonian. Many schools conduct classes after hours for parents, teaching basic survival skills, such as how to call a hospital and how to get health care for their children. 

“Some parents worry that the presence of ESOL students in class means we teach at a lower level. In fact, it enhances the learning of all students,” said Oraib Saah, the ESOL chair at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax. “If you think about it, these kids come from around the world. Before they were here, some were running barefoot in the fields of Ghana. … I consider these kids gifted. They know another language, and in some cases three languages.”

Parents also don’t want their children isolated in ESOL classes which is why ESOL teachers sit in on regular classes with students, said Mosby Woods Elementary School Principal Mahri Asti. There are 353 ESOL students at Mosby Woods speaking 30 languages from around the world.

According to a 2005 FCPS study, approximately 50 percent of the county school ESOL population is American born.

The home language dictates the level of English proficiency for students like Mehak Asghar, 10, who is fluent in Urdu and Punjabi and was born in the United States. Her English proficiency is categorized as a Level 2, out of four levels. Students such as Asghar are constantly tested to determine their proficiency.

A quarter of the 819 students at Providence are in the ESOL program, with 51 foreign languages fluently spoken by students in the school. Another Fairfax school, Eagle View Elementary, has 86 Korean-born students, and the school’s parent liaison speaks Korean.

Testing presents one of the biggest challenges for schools grappling with high numbers of English language learners. When a sixth-grade student comes to the United States, that student is expected to take the Virginia Standards of Learning tests alongside the English-speaking students in the class.

“It can be very unfair. If you think about it, how would you and I do if we were in a foreign country for only a year and were expected to do the same as native speakers?” said Iraida Rodriguez, an ESOL teacher at Mosby Woods.  

In some cases, students who do not speak English above a certain level are allowed to take the Virginia Grade Level Alternative test (VGLA) instead of the SOL, in which administrators collect a packet of information proving the student to be proficient in a particular subject, even though he or she is not fluent in English.

Providence student Abida Wali, 11, is still in that shy stage that comes with the first year of being in a new country. She is from Afghanistan and has lived in the U.S. for two months. “It’s scary,” learning and being in a new school, she said.

Madina Khurishano, 12, agreed. A sixth-grader at Providence Elementary, Khurishano has been in the country two years and when she arrived only knew how to say “thank you” and her name. She speaks Turkish, Russian and now English and her favorite subject is math, the universal language.

“Now sometimes I forget the big words,” Khurishano said, “but when I was first here it was scary and hard and I was scared to say something wrong and do something wrong.”

How do you teach a room full of kids who can’t even speak to each other, much less the teacher?

It takes years to learn a language completely. The first year, children learn basic communication skills, then cognitive learning, Saah explained.

“The first year is just receptive. Students may not speak in their language or English in public, but they’re taking everything in. So much of what they learn also comes from their peers,” she said.

“I used to think that if I repeated things over and over again, the kids would finally get it,” said Rodriguez. “But I play games, use gestures, draw, talk less and let them talk more, even though I don’t understand what they say half the time.”

“Teaching is good teaching and it doesn’t matter what language ESOL teachers speak,” said Eagle View ESOL teacher Katie Munive.

Techniques for teaching go from the very low tech, from relying on repetition and pictures, to high-tech gadgetry like computers, headsets and hand-held translators.

Teaching techniques depend on the needs for each child, said Eagle View ESOL teacher Susannah Santana.

New students feel pressure from all sides, Santana said, and are burdened by acting as English translators for their parents in school conferences and other capacities. 

While some say that children aren’t hampered by feelings of embarrassment or pressure when they are learning a language, Munive disagrees.

“The pressure of testing is extremely high,” she said. “You’d be surprised of the suicide rate of second language learners. It’s fairly crippling. They feel that time is not on their side.”

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