New program to help non-English-speaking immigrant students

Sep 9, 2015 by

Being the new kid at school has always been a difficult experience for students who move into new communities. From getting acquainted with teachers to navigating cliques and finding a place to sit in the lunchroom, new arrivals face a wide range of challenges.

But that process is greatly compounded for high schoolers from other countries who arrive at their first American schools with little-to-no English proficiency. Left isolated in classrooms where they are surrounded by teachers and students speaking a language they do not understand, many immigrant children without even basic English skills have almost no chance to learn or succeed in the U.S. educational system.

Center Point High School senior Christian Cabrera knows what it is like to be a non-English-speaking immigrant student struggling to adjust to life in an American school. Cabrera arrived in the United States from Honduras three years ago, and had a hard time adjusting to his new school until he made friends with several bilingual students and began to pick up some English, which he now speaks and understands well enough to handle a mainstream courseload.

“It felt weird because, like, somebody would be trying to talk to you and you don’t know English, and you’re trying to know what they’re talking about,” Cabrera said Tuesday morning. “So it’s weird.”

When you come to a new country, it’s hard. You don’t know anything about it and you don’t know anybody

There has been an influx of students with no English proficiency – largely immigrants from Central America, but also children from countries like Yemen, China and Greece – at Jefferson County Schools in recent years, so the school system is launching a new dedicated program aimed at helping them quickly attain rudimentary English skills.

The school system hopes that the fledgling initiative, dubbed the Newcomer Center, will serve the dual purpose of making English-deficient new immigrant students feel welcome in the school system, while getting them started on the path to English fluency.

“It will be like an English immersion. They’ll be working on English skills, they’ll be taking math assessments in their native language, they’ll be able to maintain and understand what’s going on in the classroom so we can assess their level of academics,” Lari Valtierra, ESL supervisor for Jefferson County Schools, said. “There’s always been a need, but it’s become more urgent in the last couple of years as there’s been a large influx of [immigrant] students.”

The center, which is slated to open its doors to students for the first time Thursday morning, is located in a sunny Center Point High School classroom. Headed up by a small but committed team of teachers and administrators, the center will serve students from across all county high schools who score below a certain threshold on English proficiency tests.

The Newcomer Center students will be bussed each day to Center Point from their home district high schools until they attain a high enough level of English proficiency to return to their home schools, where they will rejoin mainstream classes and continue their ESL educations.

Center Point High School Principal Van Phillips says the Newcomer Center – which Jefferson County modeled off of similar initiatives in Baldwin County and other states – is intended to be a crucial bridge between students’ experiences in their native countries and their new academic lives in Alabama.

“The process really started last year. Last spring we received upwards of 12 students from Guatemala and Honduras who spoke absolutely no English, and so we saw an influx of non-English speaking students at that time and we began to make some calls to the Jefferson County Board of Education that we needed some help, and they assigned us some additional resources,” he explained Tuesday morning in his office at Center Point.

“The language barrier prevents them from connecting to the schools and we want to celebrate all cultures at Center Point High School … You try to create an environment where kids feel safe and welcome and motivated to learn.”

Up until this year, much of the work of helping non-English-speakers feel welcome at Center Point and getting them on the path to learning the language was delegated to a crew of bilingual student leaders, who befriended new immigrant students and met with them daily as they adapted to the school.

One such leader, Center Point senior Maximilliano Vasquez, said that though many students will have to ride the bus an extra 30 or 45 minutes each morning and afternoon, he believes the Newcomer Center will be hugely beneficial.

“When you come to a new country, it’s hard. You don’t know anything about it and you don’t know anybody. At our school we have a whole bunch of people from different countries, so they can feel comfortable,” he said Tuesday morning.

“We had a whole bunch of new students come this year and we already had other students from the same country, so they felt comfortable and started talking and became friends almost instantly. Basically, I want every new student, every immigrant, to feel the same way.”

Veronica Bilger was hired this year to be the Newcomer Center’s ESL teacher, and she says that the center will have “multiple benefits” for new immigrant students across Jefferson County. She drives 1 ½ hours to Center Point each day for her new position, which she said provides her the opportunity to help students learn English “from the bottom up,” a rewarding and important job that she believes will elevate her students’ potentials.

“This is something that’s really helping children and helping them become productive citizens and productive adults in this country,” she said Tuesday during a break from setting up the center. “Instead of having them do menial labor jobs because they can’t do anything else with their language level, they’ll actually have opportunities they’d never be able to have.”

Source: New program to help non-English-speaking immigrant students get started at JeffCo schools | AL.com

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