A war orphan who learned English now teaches it to today's immigrant children

October 20, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Forty years have not dimmed Christa Bielawski's memory of her first days at Stemmers Run Middle School.

"I was one sad child," she says.

Just off the boat at Hoboken, N.J., she was a 14-year-old war orphan who'd come alone from East Germany, via Holland, to live in Baltimore with her Uncle Richard. She spoke Polish and German, but hardly any English.

"I could not communicate with anyone. The whole first year, I cried every day," Mrs. Bielawski remembers.

Spurred by her misery, and the kindness of a teacher at Stemmers Run, she learned English.

Today, it is not misery, but the memories of her own ordeal that motivate Christa Bielawski to help immigrant youngsters in Baltimore County's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.

"The high school kids are like race horses. They can barely put two words together, and they want to go to chemistry class. Most of them are highly motivated," says Mrs. Bielawski, who directs ESOL centers at Dumbarton Middle School in Rodgers Forge and at Parkville Senior High School.

Elementary school students who cannot speak English are tutored 30 minutes a day at their own schools. In all, 40 tutors instruct students in 68 of the county's elementary schools, says Susan Spinnato, an instructional specialist who oversees the ESOL program.

Last May the program had 1,000 students. Ms. Spinnato doesn't know this year's enrollment yet, but "our numbers are up," she says.

At the Owings Mills center, for instance, there were 125 students this September, compared with 65 in September 1991.

Many of the program's students are new to America when they first come to school.

Some youngsters, particularly those in high school, have left parents behind and are living with relatives. Many speak no English; some have studied it for several years.

"This transition is painful. I identify with that. It takes an enormous amount of energy to constantly work in English," says Mrs. Bielawski, a 27-year-veteran of the county schools.

But she tells them her story.

"I give them the encouragement they so desperately need. I always say I did it and I didn't have anybody on the sidelines cheering me on."

No one could accuse Christa Bielawski of not being a cheerleader -- and a helpmate and a soft shoulder -- for the students in the ESOL center she directs.

"For a short stretch, I take them along this little road of potholes -- always keeping away from those potholes," she says.

She and other ESOL teachers get the youngsters into regular classes, help them navigate the cafeteria and understand bus schedules, explain social customs to them and, most importantly, give them power through language.

Before joining the ESOL program five years ago, Mrs. Bielawski taught German. This year, her center is actually two. She is in charge of about 80 students at Dumbarton and another 90 at Parkville.

Before this school year, these students were together at Parkville Middle School.

They were separated because of space limitations and to allow the high school students to have their program in a high school rather than a middle school. There are also ESOL centers at Old Court Middle School and Owings Mills High School.

Though many of the students are from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and other Asian nations, children from at least 20 countries, including Spain, Bulgaria, Italy and Guyana, are in the program, says Mrs. Bielawski.

About one-fourth of them don't speak any English, though some understand and read it. They attend ESOL classes all day, studying English, reading, writing and American culture. All the courses are taught in English.

"I would begin by introducing myself. I would identify some child and call that person's name. As the children see that we're doing names, they get the idea," Mrs. Bielawski explains.

"In the beginning, a lot of it is rote memorization," using pictures of classroom objects and articles of clothing.

Learning often begins with a silent period. "The children just come in and sit for three weeks. But there's a lot of learning going on. When they speak, we're joyous," she says.

"One becomes very clever. You stand on your head sometimes [to get them to understand]. Almost always you know by looking at their faces if they know what you are talking about."

Often the ESOL teachers rely on other students to help them communicate, but they try to do as much as possible in English.

Students nearly fluent in English attend ESOL classes for a few periods a day and spend the rest of the time in regular classes. In these classes, Mrs. Bielawski helps children accept their foreign-born peers.

Generally, the American students and teachers "are very excited about having these kids in their classes," she says, though there are difficult moments.

"American children don't really understand. It's important for me to find opportunities to teach, to broaden their world," says Mrs. Bielawski, who occasionally speaks German to a class of American students, just to show them what their classmates face.

Children who enter the program not speaking English spend about two years in ESOL classes, says Mrs. Bielawski. Some move out of the full-time program in a few months, and confront another cultural difference.

Many of the students from Europe and Asia are used to more free time in high school and bristle at being scheduled every moment of their school day. Here, again, Mrs. Bielawski intervenes and explains.

"They feel so helpless. It's so important to have someone who really listens," she says. "The most important part of this job is that these students need an advocate . . . and that's where my heart is."

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