Wellwood's Babel yields to English Elementary school teaches students from 21 countries.

September 27, 1991|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun

Carolina Loyola and Yasumasa Deguchi sit on tiny blue chairs, mimicking the motions their tutor makes as she sings and points alternately to her head, shoulders, knees and toes.

The 4-year-old prekindergarten students follow Gabrielle Lawrence's movements, but their faces reveal that they understand little of what she says. Carolina is from Colombia, Yasumasa from Japan. It is their first week at Wellwood $l Elementary School in the Pikesville area of Baltimore County.

For these students, English is a second language.

At Wellwood, 2901 Smith Ave., 124 of the school's 405 students (30 percent) are from 21 different countries, says Frederick Ray, the principal. The school has the highest percentage of students in an English for Speakers of Other Languages program in the county, followed by Millbrook Elementary with 10 percent, and Chadwick Elementary with 7 percent.

School officials say Wellwood's large percentage of foreign students is unique. Many of those at Wellwood are the children of foreign doctors who are completing internships or residencies at Johns Hopkins Hospital and who learn of the school and the area through the hospital's housing office.

The parents of Russian immigrant students at Wellwood moved to the area because of its large Jewish population.

According to Susan Huerta, coordinator of Hopkins' International Club, 40 percent of the Bonnie Ridge Apartments near Wellwood are occupied by foreign doctors affiliated with Hopkins.

Though the majority of the Russian families are here to stay, most of the doctors are in the country on visas, and will eventually return home, Ray says.

"We have kids coming and going all the time," he says. "But usually, [they are] here long enough to master the language. Elementary school kids are like sponges," he says, adding that it usually takes a child with no previous knowledge of English about three months to speak and to understand enough to get by.

"At six months, he can do most of the work and in one year he's pretty well caught up," Ray says. Once they catch up, he adds, they often excel.

There are currently 873 students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program in the county, a little over 1 percent of the county's student population, according to Susan Spinnato, instructional specialist in the office of foreign languages and ESOL.

While secondary school children who need help with English are bused to one of the county's three ESOL centers, elementary school children are immersed in the language by attending non-ESOL classes with children their own age for most of the day. For a half-hour each day, they attend an ESOL class.

Wellwood has one full-time and one part-time ESOL teacher, and they teach over 80 of the school's foreign students.

Lawrence teaches the younger children -- prekindergarten through second grade. During a typical half-hour lesson, the expressions on the faces of Lawrence's students range from blank stares to shy smiles of comprehension when a question about the month, a color or the weather is understood.

But not everything at Wellwood is unfamiliar to a foreign child. New students find comfort in meeting other students who speak their language, and those with a better understanding of English often act as translators.

Children can also find stories written in their native languages in the school's foreign language library, which has more than 300 books.

Wellwood's library specialist, Linda Weisfeldt, is largely responsible for the school's collection of foreign language books, many of which she collected on trips to New York and Washington.

"To my knowledge, this is a much bigger collection than even the public library," Weisfeldt proudly says. "When this collection opened last May, eyes just lit up.

"I find this an absolutely exciting group of children to work with. The diversity is a broadening experience for everyone, including me."

Grace Gede, a second-grade teacher at Wellwood who does not teach in the ESOL program, agrees.

During a recent class, Gede says, students were discussing a story about a man who made a flying machine to travel from city to city. Students were asked to list places they'd like to visit, and problems they might encounter. A student from Jordan said he'd like to go to Saudi Arabia. Gede asked him what might get in the way.

"He said 'A war,' " Gede says. "When I started doing these lesson plans, I never thought something like that would come up."

Non-ESOL teachers admit that teaching is harder if a large number of students in the class don't understand English.

Foreign students make up roughly half of Sharon Hoffman's prekindergarten class of 19.

"You have to use a lot of visuals because if you don't, the Russian kids will start to talk to each other in Russian, the Spanish kids will talk to each other in Spanish and the Japanese kids will talk to each other in Japanese," Hoffman says.

"It's a challenge. It really is a challenge," Hoffman says. "But the children are very sweet. And they catch on so quickly."

Some parents of American-born students at Wellwood worry that the large number of non-English-speaking students there could adversely affect their children. But Debbie Friedman, PTA president, says that any parent with regular contact with the school knows that Wellwood's foreign students create far more advantages for American students than disadvantages.

"My child has been there for four years and she has done extremely well," Friedman says. "She has . . . been enriched."

"Most of the American parents feel that the benefit of engaging in an international relationship far outweighs any curriculum question," agrees principal Ray. "They're pleased that their kids are exposed to other cultures."

"A lot of these kids wouldn't see foreign students until college," says Joel Friedman, Debbie's husband.

"We think they become better children because of it. It's really a bonus. It's like having a pen-pal right in the classroom."

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