HOLBROOK -- Marie Joseph is a whiz at the ''noun game." The 17-year-old Holbrook High School senior, who emigrated from Haiti less than four years ago and speaks limited English, rifled off answers to the vocabulary-building game in her English Language Learners class on a recent afternoon.
But when this quick-to-smile teenager was asked about the Massachusetts Assessment Comprehensive System test she is scheduled to take this spring, her mood quickly changed. Her eyes rolled down and she covered her face.
''I don't like it," said Joseph, in a low, soft voice. ''Every time I hear that word -- MCAS -- it makes me go crazy."
The pressure to pass the MCAS test in order to graduate is on for many students who are learning English as a second language. But Holbrook school officials say they are also feeling the pressure of having to prepare students to pass the test with the limited financial resources of a small school district.
Adding to the strain, the town has experienced a surge in English Language Learners this year that pushed the number in need of special services from 21 to 47.
''The state is requiring a lot, and we are trying to keep up with it as best we can," said Virginia Cain, the district's curriculum coordinator. ''It's really challenging for us as a district our size, especially with the influx."
Already, the 1,400-student district is on a tight budget. The school system is seeking an additional $600,000 for its budget, now at $9.9 million, to cover a number of expenditures, including salary step changes and the projected loss of $300,000 in state aid. But none of the additional funding request is slated for the ELL program, and that worries some school officials.
Last month, the school system formed a committee, comprising principals, administrators, and the district's only full-time ELL facilitator, to address the issue. The panel is discussing several measures, including aligning the curriculum with the state model, improving its system to identify and assess English Language Learners in the district, and developing a training system for mainstream teachers to educate ELL students.
Currently, Holbrook utilizes a sheltered English immersion program, meaning the students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms and attend additional English language learning courses.
On a recent afternoon, Ana Peach, the district's ELL facilitator, was leading her students through exercises in language comprehension. Peach said she believes the ELL students need more support, such as more materials and one-on-one tutoring, to improve their language skills. She said she worries that the long list of tests and the pressure to pass the MCAS test will discourage students from believing they can excel.
''The schools are trying to create miracles with less and less," she said.
So far, none of her students have dropped out of school because of the pressure to meet the standards, but many struggle and constantly look to her for encouragement, she said.
Veronica Almonacid is no exception. The 18-year-old from Peru said she doesn't even like to talk about MCAS. ''It's so traumatic."
Kathryn Riley, administrator of the Office of Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement for the state Department of Education, acknowledged that smaller districts face unique challenges in preparing their English Language Learners for the MCAS.
She said the department provides a three-day workshop for school systems seeking information on ways to improve their program. Representatives from 23 districts with fewer than 100 ELL students, including Stoughton, attended the seminar last fall, she said. Another 25 are signed up to attend a seminar in May.
''There are absolutely a lot of demands, and these kids require support," said Riley. ''They are taking on something a lot of our native speakers would have trouble with."
Regarding the sudden influx of newcomers in Holbrook, local students and school officials pointed to a combination of factors, including new arrivals joining relatives in Holbrook and a strong desire among immigrant families to live in a small town.
Each, she said, share a common goal of learning English, considered the key to having a successful future in the United States.
C. Kalimah Redd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.