December 2010 Issue
November 19, 2010

Helping new ELL students adjust to school

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: There were plenty of laughs and tears as NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue moderated a student panel on challenges and successes for English language learners in U.S. schools. With Donahue are Utica students Hon Moo of Burma, Nazik Azaz of Iraq and Nelly Cioclea of Moldova. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

For Utica parent Jacqueline Solorzano, a simple note home from her child's teacher made all the difference. It gave her a jump-off point to talk with her daughter, an English language learner, about middle school.

"I understand it's difficult for teachers to find the time, but even something once a week is good," said Solorzano, an ELL from Ecuador who is now studying to become a teacher herself.

Homework-help and adult literacy programs have been lifesavers for Aungtin Moe, a refugee from Burma who has two children, works a full-time job, attends English classes at Mohawk Valley Community College and gets by on only three to four hours of sleep per night.

"Please make it easier for parents to get into schools," said Korjia Mahdi, of Iraq, who explained how difficult it had been to find out why her eighth-grade son's schedule was changed four times this year. "One parent-teacher conference a year just isn't enough."

Educators listened intently as a panel of English language learners and their parents talked about what works — and doesn't work —- in today's schools.

The panel was part of a NYSUT regional conference, "Enriching the Education of English Language Learners," which drew more than 160 practitioners this fall from around central New York.

The conference is part of NYSUT's ongoing commitment to support members' efforts to modify instruction to meet the needs of ELLs, said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. The event was co-sponsored by numerous education organizations and professional groups.

Aida Kabil-Cvijanovic, an academic coach in the Utica City Schools, shared strategies to support newcomer students and help them adjust to school in the U.S.

Approximately 15 percent of Utica's students are ELLs, many of them refugees from a variety of countries.

English language learners benefit just as much from their parents' involvement in their education as other students — perhaps more, Kabil-Cvijanovic said. But too often, ELL parents feel apprehensive about getting involved because of their limited English skills and lack of familiarity with mainstream culture and the public school system.

"Educators should never assume that ELL students, no matter what their age and background, have basic knowledge about what school is like in America," Kabil-Cvijanovic said.

ELLs on the student panel underscored the huge cultural learning curve. When NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue asked them what scared them most, they responded: "What's a 'Regents' test?" "Why do students keep moving from class to class?" and "Please don't make me read out loud!"

Activities such as using money in the cafeteria, riding a noisy bus and mastering combination locks can also be huge hurdles for students adapting to a new culture.

"The teachers were so good about explaining the schedule," said Nazik Azez, a student from Iraq. "That helped me a lot because I was shocked at how huge the school was."

It's crucial to create opportunities for parents to physically enter the building, said Julia Burgos, a social worker at Brentwood Schools on Long Island, which has the largest ELL population in the state outside of New York City. "This not only establishes a personal connection; it makes parents see us as a resource," Burgos said.

She suggested:

  • after-school clubs include parents as leaders or assistants;
  • adult literacy classes;
  • recreational and multicultural activities involving ethnic foods, dances, arts; and
  • information nights regarding curriculum, testing and specific subject matters. Once a month, ELL families gather at her middle school for a meal together.

For students, Burgos' district offers mini-academies on health, hygiene and making friends; transportation and time; study skills; taking tests; school safety and managing stress.

Burgos urged educators not to be afraid to ask questions to learn more about cultural and ethnic backgrounds, perhaps using parent questionnaires and translators if necessary.

"You can learn so much about your students' backgrounds and needs by asking simple questions," Burgos said. "Or just take the time to listen."

She talked about a student from Nepal who was petrified of physical education class. After Burgos met with her, she learned the teenager was really just reluctant to change her clothes in front of other people.

"For her, it was changing her clothes; for another little boy, it could be something else," Burgos said. "If you don't ask questions, you can't make personal connections."