- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2018

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) - For the second year in a row, Gadsden City High School hosted a summer program for students who are new to the English language. Most of them are newcomers to the United States as well.

Krista Whatley, an ESL (English Second Language) consultant, said her objective with the program is to help with academics while also creating relationships between the students and faculty. “It does give a background of the academics,” she said, “but a lot of it is social and emotional support.

“A lot of these kids are thrown into a sink-or-swim situation,” Whatley said, “and this is the first time they’ve really gotten to know each other. Some of them may be friends, but they haven’t really been able to build a supportive network.”

Students participating in the program are members of the English language program at GCHS and are evaluated through annual testing to measure their proficiency in language and other subjects. Many are documented but unattended youth requesting asylum or refugee status while they travel the path to citizenship.

The majority traveled from Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, many alone or with younger siblings. Each experience was different, and getting the students to share their stories of getting to the U.S. helps them bond with one another and with the teachers working with them.

The first few days of the program are very quiet, Whatley said, as they tried to develop relationships through those individual stories. The classroom walls were decorated with murals that told the stories, and the students practiced them in English and learned how to respond to questions visiting teachers and staff were prompted to ask.

Some were still shy about sharing their personal details. Others spent their time telling their stories and encouraging their classmates to share theirs.

One student traveled alone with her young sister, and Whatley said her story brought tears to the eyes of a faculty member. “They spent five days in the desert with no food or water,” she said. “When we asked her what she did, she responded, ‘When we were hungry, we prayed.’”

Another student traveled on his own when he was 16 and has been living with a relative here for nearly two years. He has been trying to do right by the law, but after appearing for a court date, he was detained locally because he is now 18, according to faculty at the summer program. He eventually was transferred to a detention center in Louisiana, where a judge released him back to his relative.

He arrived home about midnight and was at the summer program the next morning because he wanted to see his friends.

Despite his circumstances, the student said it is important for people seeking citizenship to always follow the law. Some of the faculty working with the program said this student did just that, and they felt compelled to write letters of recommendation to the judge that helped with his release. “This kid’s going to be something special,” Whatley said.

The students met for eight days over two weeks, learning social studies, math, science and art while working on their English skills.

Their education levels differed. Before arriving in the U.S., some had regularly attended school in their native countries. Others had only been for a few years.

Some of the students in the program have lived their entire lives here, but had no experience with English before school because they speak a native language or dialect at home.

Kim Brasher, a math teacher at GCHS, said some students are able to do higher levels of math despite not knowing all the words to go along with the subject. Others, though, need help understanding monetary systems or how to read clocks.

“We in high school don’t typically go back and teach things that should have been taught in elementary school,” Brasher said. “You don’t really think about having two or three in a class that don’t have those basic skills.”

The summer program serves as a way for teachers to address this challenge, and Whatley spends the last half hour of each day speaking with teachers and giving them tips to work better with students across different proficiency levels.

The teachers said students returning from last year were less shy and knew more of what to expect, and helped newcomers feel more comfortable in the program. The teachers were more prepared this year and knew what to expect as far as the curriculum.

Whatley’s goal was finding a way to get the students involved with the community outside the school walls. The students visited the Gadsden Museum of Art. Each drew a self-portrait on a sheet of paper covered with pages from an English dictionary, then water-colored in their features.

Jill Edwards, education and outreach coordinator at the museum, instructed the students during the lesson. The reasoning behind the dictionary page background, she said, was to highlight that learning the language was one of the biggest things to overcome when moving to a new country. The students’ self-portraits and murals will be on display at the museum beginning on July’s First Friday and will be up for about a month, Edwards said.

Finding ways to get the students involved in the community is another goal of the EL program. Many have difficulty finding available resources, but GCHS has been trying to help there.

Hector Baeza, the system’s director of federal programs at the school, said the EL program strives to have all students reach the highest proficiency level on their yearly tests by the time they graduate.

“One of my big goals for the high school kids is that they are going to be prepared to go to college, a career tech school, the military or service industry when they graduate,” he said. “Whatever they choose, I want them to be prepared for it.”

The system has hired a second EL teacher, which will make it possible for each teacher to spend more time with fewer children at once. Families also get a tour of the high school during registration before the school year to see what it has to offer.

For students working to raise their scores on proficiency testing, Baeza offers tours of Gadsden State Community College and hopes to expand to other places like Jacksonville State University.

Programs like the one hosted at the school “promote a better understanding in a classroom, and it’s something that would be beneficial for all teachers to take a turn at doing,” Brasher said. “It does open your eyes to things you don’t necessarily see during the school year.”

Baeza said the non-English-speaking community tends to be quieter because they are not aware of the different things the community has to offer to them. But by working with students and teachers at the school, Whatley hopes to help with that.

“My objective is to get a buy-in from the faculty and to help them realize what these kids have been through,” she said.

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Information from: The Gadsden Times, http://www.gadsdentimes.com


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