Thursday, October 18, 2007

PUT TO THE TEST: Newcomers program giving non-English speakers a leg up

By KENT JACKSON, Staff Writer
Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Eric Medina grew up in the Dominican Republic and attended a five-room schoolhouse.
When he was 14, he moved to Hazleton and entered Hazleton Area High School, that has 88 classrooms.

“When you come to the big school, you are afraid to talk,” Medina said.
Unfamiliarity with English also added to his reluctance to speak.
“I went right to English class. I didn’t know nothing about English,” he said. “I worked to learn English. It was so difficult to me.”
The work paid off.

Medina made the honor roll and graduated from Hazleton Area last year with a scholarship from the Migrant Education Program that helps him attend Luzerne County Community College.

Reflecting on high school, Medina said he liked the idea of students teaching each other and also thinks teachers of English as a Second Language should know Spanish.
His comments point to a weakness that educators at the high school seek to address to meet goals of No Child Left Behind, a federal law.

Overall, students at the high school met the goals of the law as measured by their scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment or PSSA, a standardized test.
Latinos, however, missed the target – as did students from families with low incomes and students with special needs.

On the PSSA, 25.2 percent of Latinos at the high school were proficient in math, whereas the target was 45 percent.

In reading, 30.7 percent of Latinos scored proficient, but the target was 54 percent.
“The students who do speak English here – they don’t want to help the new student,” Medina said.

He also said teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL), should know Spanish, at least in the newcomers program.

In the newcomers program, students with limited knowledge of English stay together for hours, learning science, history, math and English from teachers certified to teach those subjects.

A teacher certified in English as a Second Language also stays with the class.
The high school didn’t have the program when Medina arrived.
Instead, he was excused from a portion of regular classes for English as a Second Language class.

About a dozen students were in the ESL classes, which Medina liked because his teacher also knew Spanish.

“That way she could help us with the homework,” Medina said.
Last year, Medina’s younger brother was in the newcomers program.
“The problem was (the students) were speaking Spanish in class and did not understand the teacher,” Medina said.

English as a Second Language classes, however, aren’t just for students who grew up speaking Spanish.

Although Spanish is the native language for the majority of students trying to learn English in Hazleton, the ESL classes over the years have included students from Switzerland, Vietnam, Egypt, Sudan, Albania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Russia and Italy.

Patty Cassarella said the ESL program has grown during her 16 years as a teacher.
The program, which had two teachers then, has 26 now and more structure.
As soon as students enroll, they complete a survey and if necessary take a placement test to measure whether they should be in an ESL program.

After students advance from the newcomers program, they progress through four different levels of ESL classes.

They take yearly tests to measure their progress and are monitored after they leave the program for regular classes.

“It takes from seven to 10 years until they really do know their academic language as close to a native speaker as they’re going to get,” Cassarella said.
In the shelter of the newcomers program, teachers also get familiar with students, build on what they know and learn about their goals.

We “try to determine what their needs are and whether they need (English) for their work, to go to college, to raise their children and hone in on that subject matter,” Cassarella said.

Parents can talk to a bilingual secretary to learn what will be expected of their children in the high school and what they must do to prepare for college.
“The parents are very interested in being involved. It’s very important for them to understand the needs of their children,” Cassarella said.

Seniors help younger students as a service project required for graduation.
Latino students also can work on assignments and English skills in after-school and summer sessions like the Migrant Education Program that awarded a scholarship to Medina.

Now that Medina is in college and majoring in computer science, he joins in more readily.

“I know a little bit of English I can talk. I can participate in class,” he said.
History is his hardest class.

“You have to remember the date, who did this, who did that,” said Median, who also has to comprehend and write English for the history class.

“I guess the math is the very easy class. You only have to deal with numbers,” he said.

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