The lessons don't come easily in Anthony Garces-Foley's classroom at Elm
Street School — not for the students or the teacher.
Last week, a simple session on adverbs had Garces-Foley literally running
circles around his south Oxnard classroom, urging students to describe his
And it had the fifth- and sixth-grade students — sons and daughters of
recent immigrants — scrambling for their Spanish-to-English dictionaries
to find the right words to complete the assignment.
"How am I running now?" Garces-Foley asked, easing to a slow-motion trot.
Pages flipped until the answer emerged.
"Slowly," 10-year-old Veronica Santiago offered.
"Yes, slowly," the teacher responded. "Very good."
Slowly but surely, the lessons unfold at the Newcomer Program offered by
the Oxnard Elementary School District. Now in its third year, the effort
is among dozens statewide dedicated to easing new arrivals into the
classroom and the community at large, a safety valve aimed at helping
immigrant students find their way in what can be a large and perplexing
The Oxnard program takes about 150 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade
students each year from across the district who have been in the country
less than 12 months and speak only Spanish.
The idea is to provide intensive English-language instruction and social
acculturation for the new arrivals, most of whom come from Mexico and many
of whom have never set foot in a classroom.
Most youngsters are placed in the program for a year and then transferred
to their neighborhood schools.
The goal is to make students conversant in English by the end of the
school year. But the program also serves a larger purpose, seeking to make
the children feel at home in their new country while providing an
education that goes beyond book-learning to instill such values as
patriotism and civic responsibility.
"I see myself in a lot of these kids," said Garces-Foley, 31, who arrived
in the United States from the Philippines at age 7, unable to speak
English and forced into a school system unfriendly to new arrivals.
"Being an immigrant and newcomer myself, I know what they are going
through," the teacher added. "But I tell them if I can make it, they can
There has been some debate nationwide about the merit of such programs.
Critics worry about the expense associated with the intensive instruction
involved and contend that it can be counterproductive to isolate recent
arrivals at a time when they should be working to blend into their new
But Lorraine McDonnell, chairwoman of the political science department at
UC Santa Barbara and a longtime observer of similar programs, said it has
been her experience that such efforts ultimately pay dividends to new
arrivals, not only academically but socially.
"It is not only about learning English. It's really about helping these
students begin to adapt to a new country," said McDonnell, who has studied
the programs as a Rand Corp. researcher and university professor. "When I
studied them, I came away very impressed. These kids were getting the kind
of education we probably wish all kids would get."
McDonnell said she found that newcomer programs often had lower
student-teacher ratios than regular classrooms and that teachers usually
volunteered to work in them, driven by a passion to see immigrant
That is clearly the case at Elm Street School. Several of the program's
teachers were newcomers themselves or have parents who immigrated to the
Then there is veteran teacher Christi Davis, who, after 18 years in the
Upland Unified School District, came to Oxnard last year in search of a
job in just such a program.
Her goal, like others on the five-teacher newcomer staff, had long been to
help youngsters learn to speak English. She now has more than 30 fifth-
and sixth-grade students, most of whom speak, read and write little or no
"We tell them, 'This is your chance, if you don't work hard and get it
now, there's a big world that awaits you and it's going to be rough,' "
Davis said. "There is a high level of motivation among most of the
students and their parents. To many of them, this program is like a gift."
While English-language instruction is integral to the program, it is not
the only thing immigrant students are taught at the year-round school.
Second-year teacher Patty Zamora takes great pride in the way her students
soak up lessons on U.S. culture and history, noting their enthusiasm for
belting out such songs as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Oh! Susannah."
And fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Blanca Tizcareño — once a newcomer
herself, arriving in Oxnard at age 16 — spent a good part of one morning
last week instructing students how to find the mode and median of a set of
numbers representing high temperatures for the month of October.
But many of the lessons come back to the idea that learning English is
essential, even if they are as simple as taking attendance or counting the
days on the calendar.
"I love seeing the results," said Nancy Rodriguez, who teaches a fourth-
and fifth-grade class and is awed by the strides the youngsters make in a
year. "The kids are learning how language is formed: how to speak it, how
to read it and how to write it. We've seen a lot of success in the
Garces-Foley likes to point out those successes in his own classroom.
One of them is 11-year-old Roberto Martinez, a handsome sixth-grader with
deep dimples who was elected class president this year. He has only been
in the country three months and already has plans to launch a soccer club
and an academic team to help youngsters keep up their grades.
Or sixth-grader Veronica Santiago, whose farm-worker parents emigrated
last year from Mexico.
Nobody's hand goes up more often than that of the sweet, ponytailed girl
from the Mexican state of Guerrero. She was elected class treasurer and
wants to be a schoolteacher so she can help others learn their new
"I tell them all they are lucky to have this opportunity. Otherwise, they
could be in an all-English class, not able to shine the way they are
shining here," Garces-Foley said in his classroom, where the walls are
plastered with English phrases and the desks are topped with potted
plants, each sporting a Mexican flag.
In a move heavy with meaning, those flags will be replaced with United
States flags by the Fourth of July.
"We want them to feel at home and to feel pride about their country,"
Garces-Foley said. "But we also want to let them know this is a safe place
to make this transition."