Every day an English test at Virginia school
May. 1, 2006
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - The multilingual chatter in Claudia Creo's third-grade
classroom comes to an abrupt halt when a picture of the American flag flashes on
a TV screen. Hands over hearts, the children recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Three immaculately dressed girls at the side of the room stand silently.
Newly arrived from Mexico and Guatemala, they don't know enough English to say
the words. But if the experience of their classmates is any guide, it won't be
long before they do.
At Hybla Valley Elementary, the school with the highest percentage of non-native
English speakers in Fairfax County, teachers pride themselves on being able to
move students with no English skills to speaking and reading in a single
academic year.As members of Congress argue on Capitol Hill over what to do about
immigration, teachers at this crowded school just across the Potomac River deal
with its effects every day. Of Hybla's 686 students,
48 percent have limited English skills. They are the sons and daughters of
people drawn by the booming economy in one of the nation's wealthiest counties.
The National Association of Counties estimated that the average household income
in Fairfax County in 2004 was $127,421, the fifth-highest in the nation. But at
Hybla, 92 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -
available to families with low incomes. Many of the students' parents hold two
and three jobs, says principal James Dallas, 42.
"Most of them work in the service industry: hotel chains, landscaping, cleaning
services, construction," he says.
Don't know who's illegal
How many of the children are here illegally? School officials don't know;
the state of Virginia doesn't permit them to ask.
But Creo tells of one student who walked 700 miles with her mother to the
United States. Sixth-grade teacher Kristen Scott had a student who walked to
the United States from Guatemala. She says she had to teach the 12-year-old
how to hold a pencil.
The children are preoccupied by the immigration debate in Congress. Scott
recalls being taken aback when, during a class discussion of the Civil War,
one of her sixth-graders asked, "Do you think there will be a civil war
because of immigration?" Creo says some of her third-graders worry their
parents might be deported.
Legal or not, the students are an inspiration, Hybla teachers say. "They
come to school eager to learn even though they haven't had dinner the night
before," Creo says.
Creo, 55, left a law firm to teach and says she finds her new job far more
fulfilling. She brags about the boy who started third grade this year
knowing no English and now ranks No. 3 in the class.
Creo trained to teach English to non-native speakers. She says she feels
it's her mission to welcome America's newcomers by teaching them the
language. "That's what I'm meant to do," Creo says. "That's what this
country is all about."