by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Nahreen Sampour explains, through an interpreter, that she has missed seven years of school. She was raised in Iraq, where 75 percent of girls drop out by the end of primary school. Her family fled to Syria to escape the bloodshed, and found themselves in the midst of civil war. Eight weeks ago she landed in Modesto, where the 17-year-old enrolled in the Language Institute (LI) for new arrivals.
Some of her classmates are also from the Middle East; others come from Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand, India and other countries. She sits at a table giggling with new friends she has made.
Diversity rises to a whole new level at the LI, with 172 students representing 31 countries who speak 16 languages. Many have witnessed war, murder, kidnapping, and persecution for being an ethnic minority. Some students have parents who worked for the U.S. government.
The LI helps newly arrived immigrants acquire the oral language skills and literacy needed to be successful in this country, and assists in the acculturation process which is often so overwhelming for teens adjusting to American society, says Lindsey Bird, a history teacher who helped create the program. She and three other Modesto Teachers Association members work at the institute, which allows students to complete a fifth year of high school and take mainstream classes when they are ready. Located at Davis High School, the LI also has a middle school component at Roosevelt Junior High.
Surrounded by farmland in the Central Valley, Modesto was made famous decades ago in the film American Graffiti for its culture of cruising. Today, it’s a popular destination for those who have made long voyages before arriving on American soil.
“We always knew we had a large Spanish-speaking population, but we had not anticipated the large number of war refugees,” says Bird. “Our large Assyrian community has led to Modesto becoming a significant resettlement area.”
Students are taught in sheltered English based on ability rather than age or grade. Some exit the program after just one year; others stay much longer. The immersion classes have four “tiers” of instruction, and teachers are aided by education support professionals who speak Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Instructors use lots of visuals and dramatic interpretation in class. For example, to show the meaning of the word “exit,” MTA member Amelia Herrera-Evans runs out the door repeatedly.
“Someday, I’ll win an Emmy for best actress,” jokes the English language development teacher, who feigned sickness several times during a lesson to demonstrate the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy ones. “They arrive here with zero English, and to see them succeed is really cool.”
She describes the key to success as “scaffolding instruction like nobody’s business” and developing caring relationships with students.
The strategies are paying off: Students’ California English Language Development Test (CELDT) scores have gone through the roof, and California Standards Test (CST) scores show substantial improvement after a year. Graduation rates have risen dramatically, and most graduates enroll in Modesto Junior College. Five of last year’s graduates were accepted at four-year universities. Davis High staff have hosted visitors from other school districts who are interested in trying out this model.
A population with high needs
“When I first came here, I felt alone,” recalls Mirna Esho, 19, who arrived from Iraq three years ago. “I couldn’t speak to anybody. But when I came to the Language Institute, it wasn’t scary. I learned government, math, biology and English. I made friends.”
She is now on track to graduate in May and helps other new arrivals feel at home. Adjusting, she says, was a challenge.
The needs of LI students can differ from other English learners. For example, many lack a basic comprehension of American culture, so the program’s “acculturation component” helps students understand things such as holidays, birthday parties, banking, transportation systems, and how to behave in school, such as being quiet when the teacher is talking.
Some don’t understand the Roman alphabet or phonemic awareness. Others have huge gaps in their education and cannot comprehend simple math or science. Interestingly, most are technologically savvy and enjoy social networking.
In addition to adjusting to a new culture, students must adjust to cultural differences with each other. Some have never attended class with students of the opposite sex and don’t realize boys and girls can have platonic friendships. Some exhibit behaviors that are acceptable in their own culture, but may be considered sexual harassment in the U.S. Staff are often called upon to set things straight.
“They are not just learning how to be American,” says Bird. “They are learning to live in a diverse country. They are learning how to be tolerant and accept each other’s cultures. We have to teach some of them how to be empathetic. They must learn that everyone has the freedom to be different. Many come from places where everybody looks the same and is supposed to think the same — or they are persecuted for it.”
As students let down their guard, they share stories about traumatizing events. One student from Mexico was kidnapped by a drug cartel member who held an AK-47 to his head. Female students crossing the Mexican border confide they have been sexually abused by “coyotes” (smugglers). One student from the Middle East saw his girlfriend get into a car that exploded before his eyes. Another says his father played dead so he wouldn’t be shot by terrorists.
Students may not have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but 85 percent of LI students probably have some form of PTSD, say staff, who refer their families to social service agencies and counselors that can provide psychological help. However, families often don’t take advantage of these opportunities, since mental health counseling is frowned upon in many cultures.
“We give them the opportunity to talk or write about their experiences and express what they have been through, which can be unofficial therapy,” says Bird. “We ask them to use their experiences as a vehicle of empowerment — and to honor their families for the sacrifices they’ve made, by plugging into education and seizing the opportunity given to them.”
A sense of belonging
“It’s like family,” says Imraz Gill, a student who arrived from India a year ago. “Everybody is learning English. We can have conversations and learn from each other.”
The majority of students feel a sense of family in the LI, says Herrera-Evans.
“They sense our love for them and how much we want them to succeed. They know we are there for them. I love my job.
Teachers here find endless rewards on a daily basis.” Students may have diverse backgrounds and languages, but share a common bond — a strong desire to succeed academically and build a better life in America.
Franklin Rodas, who arrived six months ago from El Salvador, believes he’s on the path to success.
“I have learned a lot at the Language Institute. And I will learn more.”
Nahreen Sampour, who missed seven years of school, is looking forward, not backward.
“I want to learn,” she says. “I want to be something in the future.”
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