- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - When Tupelo High School sophomore Thang Truong moved to the United States just one year ago, learning English was at the top of his to-do list.

The then-freshman at THS was put into an English as a Second Language class (ESL), and he has spent hours studying the language at home.

“I had to learn English,” Truong said. “That was the first thing.”

Now, Truong speaks in full sentences and is able to maintain conversations.

Truong is just one of hundreds of ESL students in the Tupelo Public School District with 17 different languages spoken among them.

The largest groups of ESL students speak Spanish, Arabic and Japanese, respectively.

Of these nearly 300 students, a fraction are classified as “immigrant” students, meaning they have attended an American school for three or fewer years.

These students face unique challenges, according to Amal Musa, Arabic translator for TPSD and former ESL interventionist for the district, but they can look to their schools for resources and support.

Musa herself immigrated to the United States from Jerusalem to attend college.

“It’s a huge difference between the educational system here and overseas,” Musa said. “.The learning style is completely different. There was a lot to learn in that regard.”

Musa said immigrant children also often struggle with making friends and understanding social interactions at school.

“When they immigrate, they feel isolated all of a sudden,” Musa said. “They don’t know anybody; they don’t know anything.”

In light of these challenges, Musa said schools can become a support center of sorts for students and families as they get acclimated to life in the United States.

Students new to TPSD are offered after-school tutoring, which is federally funded.

The district also offers ESL parents and students access to Rosetta Stone.

Ruth Baker, part-time ESL coordinator for TPSD, said although her department focuses on helping students in the classroom, it often guides families as they look for other resources in the community.

“The ESL families are very interested in how their children are succeeding in school, how to help their children succeed in school, and our job is to provide the resources for them to be able to do that,” Baker said.

That’s where translators for TPSD, like Musa, step in.

Some translators for the district are part-time employees and others work on an hourly basis as needed.

They attend parent-teacher conferences, school functions and other meetings to translate for parents. Musa said parents also often reach out to her with questions about school in general and with any concerns they may have about their children.

“It can be as simple as dropping off and picking up in the morning,” Musa said.

Musa can then communicate those concerns to the child’s teacher in English, helping open communication between home and the classroom for those parents.

According to Musa, this really is key to these students’ success.

“When you have a barrier of language and it’s broken and you both interact and feel comfortable, it’s really important for the success of the children,” Musa said. “When you have that support, you have a great rate of success.”

When it comes to how ESL students are taught in the classroom, Baker said the basic principles of language acquisition are applied to all students, regardless of what their native language may be.

In the elementary grades, ESL students work in small groups with interventionists.

At Tupelo Middle School and Tupelo High School, ESL students have an ESL class every day. In those classes, they continue to work on becoming proficient in English.

Clark Parker, who teaches the ESL class at THS, said he has students at all levels of proficiency in the same class.

Those who are more proficient often work in groups, helping each other with classwork, Parker said, while those at lower levels need more individualized instruction.

Truong said the class has taught him vocabulary and grammar and has increased his confidence in his pronunciation of English words, but truly becoming proficient in the language takes work outside of school.

“You have to practice at home,” Truong said.

Lea Ann Dunklee, ESL coordinator for TPSD, said the district’s ESL population has grown slowly but steadily over the past few years, and she expects that growth to continue.

The goal, Dunklee said, is for students to become proficient in English and move out of the ESL program and into the mainstream curriculum.



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