Diversity on rise in ESOL classes

Teachers give English lessons, help students adapt

January 30, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Students starting over in a new school face all sorts of problems -- getting to know new classmates and teachers, adapting to unfamiliar routines.

Those hurdles are even more daunting for 1,516 foreign-born students who attend Baltimore County schools and speak little or no English.

Helping them adapt are 85 teachers, tutors and counselors in the English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program, which has seen enrollment grow by half during the past eight years as U.S. immigration laws have eased.

Student profiles have changed, too. More children from India and Pakistan have been entering the school system than ever, said Susan C. Spinnato, coordinator of the Baltimore County foreign language and ESOL programs. Although her office registers lots of Korean, Russian and Chinese students, the number of students speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam is increasing.

The ESOL staff acts as an "advocate for the child and his family," said Spinnato. "They have to work them through American processes like field trips and school lunches and snow days, all kinds of things we have in our schools that may be new." Life for these students is exciting and scary at the same time. Sometimes it's even a little easier.

Min Kim, an eighth-grader at Dumbarton Middle School, noted that in her native South Korea, grades are determined by final exams. Here, she said, there is less pressure; teachers place more emphasis on homework and class participation.

Still, adjusting to the nuances of a foreign culture can be frustrating.

"If you wear the same shirt two days in a row, people will be like, `Eww, that guy stinks,' " says Andrew Bodrog, a sixth-grader at Dumbarton who came to the United States from Hungary.

A friend of Bodrog's, Alex Malorodov, a Dumbarton eighth-grader who was born in Russia, says he gets confused when teachers rattle off directions.

ESOL centers -- where foreign-born students receive intensive language instruction -- have been established at Dumbarton, Lansdowne Middle School, Parkville High School and Owings Mills High School. Teachers and tutors also circulate throughout the system to meet with individuals or groups of students.

Since the school system started the ESOL program in the mid-1970s, it has seen significant changes -- in size, funding and the origins of the students enrolled, Spinnato said.

Changing intensity

"The intensity of the program has changed, too," she said. "We have a lot more to offer, including more content-based instruction in areas such as U.S. history, science and social studies."

Funding comes from the state's School Accountability Funding for Excellence program, which provides a certain amount of money per ESOL student each year. This year, the state's contribution to Baltimore County's ESOL program totaled $1.8 million, Spinnato said.

At Dumbarton, ESOL teacher Jill Williams manages a department of six teachers who work with about 115 students who, collectively, speak 35 languages.

When they start at Dumbarton, some students can barely put together enough words in English to ask for a pencil. Even so, they are enthusiastic learners.

During a review of a story about a Japanese boy's experiences in New York City, Ever Tobar, a sixth-grader from El Salvador, called out an answer to teacher Kate McKenna in Spanish.

"Ever got it right, just in the wrong language," McKenna said, offering encouragement.

Most teachers at Dumbarton speak Spanish, French or Hebrew and try to pick up key phrases in students' native languages, said teacher Christy Waddail.

"When they see you fumble around in their language, it helps them to realize that we know how hard it is," she said.

Advanced ESOL students at Dumbarton prepare a newspaper called Rainbow Around the World. In it, they describe some of the hurdles they face as newcomers.

`It's not easy'

"Do you know the ESOL kids?" wrote Nina Kamooei, a seventh-grader from Iran. "Do you know that we have a hard job? It's not easy to learn a new language."

In another article, Julia Dovgon, an eighth-grader from Russia, explained how much time it takes her to do homework. "It is hard to study," she said. "I need to study all day after school. Also, half of my weekend is spent doing my homework."

Bonding with teachers

While it might be difficult to connect with U.S.-born classmates at first, many ESOL students get close to their teachers, said Williams, who frequently receives e-mail from former students.

"They tell me how they are doing at their new schools, and sometimes I get lovely thank-you letters," Williams said. "They tell me they didn't know how good they had it here, sweet things like that."

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