Older Students Who Need Basics Pose Challenge
Washington Post
May 29, 2006

By Lori Aratani, Staff Writer

Systems Use Special Programs to Help Immigrants With Little Education in Their Native Countries; B02

When Jose Velasquez, a soft-spoken teenager from Nicaragua whose basketball jersey and baggy jeans drape his lean frame, enrolled in a Montgomery County high school, his teachers soon discovered that he was far from ready for the classroom.

Although he was 17, he couldn't do division, write a paragraph or read a simple sentence in English. Although many immigrant students excel in school, a few, such as Velasquez, have so little education in their native language that they pose a special challenge when they enter local schools. They lack the basic skills necessary to benefit from traditional programs -- known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) -- that are designed to acclimate immigrants to the U.S. educational system.

At a time when No Child Left Behind requires that educators ensure that all students are literate, the plight of this group illustrates the hurdles faced by even wealthy school systems such as those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties as they attempt to meet the law's mandates. Somehow, educators must help students with little formal schooling read, write and do math at the same level as the kids who arrive at school as kindergartners fluent in English.

"The challenge with high-schoolers is the lack of time," said Keith Buchanan, coordinator of the ESOL office for Fairfax County Public Schools. "The clock is ticking the minute they walk into that school." The process of teaching this group can be difficult and frustrating for students and teachers, experts say. Older teenagers such as Velasquez are so far behind that educators are trying to cram nine to 10 years' worth of learning into just a few years.

And students unaccustomed to the rigors of U.S. schools sometimes find themselves struggling with a new set of expectations.

"I like school," Velasquez said through a translator. "There's much more opportunity here, so I want to work hard."

But the schoolwork is difficult, and math is particularly tricky for him, he said. Even with the help of a Spanish-speaking aide, trying to understand linear equations sometimes makes his head hurt. In many cases, such students must be taught more than academics. Neither they, nor often their parents, understand why they have to do homework or even why they have to come to school every day.

"They're lacking in so many social and educational skills," said Maria Garcia, an ESOL counselor at Gaithersburg High School. "Things that other kids learned in kindergarten -- how to sit still, how to learn -- they don't know, because they haven't been in school. And it's difficult because they see the difference [in ability] between themselves and their peers."

Although they might use similar teaching methods, area school systems have different strategies for working with this group of students. In addition to their regular ESOL offerings, Fairfax public schools offer evening programs at four transitional high schools targeted at immigrants 18 and older. Schools in the District offer "newcomer" courses that focus on teaching students life skills and interpersonal communication .

"We don't want to have an uneducated underclass here," said Karen Adkins-Hastings, a guidance counselor at South Lakes Transitional High School in Fairfax.

"That's part of what [these programs] are all about." In Montgomery, students such as Velasquez enroll in METS -- the Multidisciplinary, Education, Training and Support program -- for students 9 and older. Students are taught in smaller classes -- usually about 15 students -- by teachers who specialize in working with non-English, mostly Spanish, speakers. Teachers use a variety of strategies to reach students, including lots of visual aids and hand motions, in 50-minutesessions. Fairfax takes a similar approach, but students take 90-minute classes.

During a recent class at Gaithersburg High, where Velasquez is a freshman, Margaret VanBuskirk began the lesson by assigning students to write brief sentences on what they did over spring break. She asked the question slowly in English. When the students looked puzzled, she pantomimed eating, sleeping and other activities as suggestions. When students recognized an activity, she had them repeat it in English, first using present tense, then past tense, before writing it on a sheet of paper tacked to the white board.

Velasquez takes three 50-minute courses especially designed for METS students -- social studies, reading and math -- along with non-METS classes in science and math. Ideally, as he and his classmates gain more fluency in English, they will be moved into more advanced ESOL courses and then into regular high school classes.

But Velasquez's progress, like that of many newcomers, is slow. He is among VanBuskirk's better students -- he does his homework and comes to class every day. But after a year and four months in school, he has moved ahead only one grade level in math -- from second to third. His reading is improving, but he is still at primary grade level.

Alex Mendez was born in the United States, but he spent several years in El Salvador before returning to Gaithersburg seven months ago to live with his father.

Like Velasquez, he is trying to learn English as well as an entirely different culture.

He said he will try to graduate from high school, but beyond learning English he doesn't have any specific goals.

"I like [Ms. VanBuskirk's class] because it feels like family," he said through a translator. "But the work is difficult because I don't understand English."

How well these programs work for older students such as Velasquez and Mendez is difficult to assess by standard measures, educators say. Montgomery doesn't track the number of METS students who move into mainstream English classes or graduate from high school. And in Fairfax, officials don't distinguish these students from regular ESOL kids.

However, an independent analysis of Montgomery's METS program released this year by the Latino Education Coalition, a collaborative of local groups concerned about the achievement of Latino students, painted a troubling picture. It found "numerous, serious shortfalls" and that older METS students "receive insufficient support within the school system and that not enough resources are channeled to support the success of these students."

At one high school, the study's authors found, seven of the 18 students enrolled in the METS program in the 2004-05 school year dropped out. Another school lost more than half of its METS kids.

"These are students that we believe [the school system] is missing," said Candace Kattar, executive director of Identity Inc., one of the agencies that did the study. Too often, she said, these kids are slipping through the cracks because their numbers are small and their parents don't know how to be advocates for them. With the number of Latino students in Montgomery growing -- from 12 percent of the student population a decade ago to 20 percent today -- the system can no longer afford to ignore their needs, she added.

Fairfax educators say about one-third of the 325 students who enroll in the Transitional High School program graduate and move to an alternative high school, where they can continue studying English and working toward a diploma. But administrators say that number can be misleading because it fails to account for students who move out of the area or who take the skills they've gained to get jobs.

Montgomery officials concede that more can be done for older METS students and have formed a task force to study new strategies to reach this population. One possibility: offering students vocational training in addition to academic instruction.

"I can't say we're always successful, but we're hopeful we can provide them with understanding of what their goals could be," said Lois Wions, program supervisor for ESOL Instruction for the Montgomery school system. "But we also have to be realistic with ourselves and our students. There's very little chance that in four years a student who is not literate is going to graduate from high school."

But Kattar and others say they are optimistic that something can be done for students such as Velasquez before they get discouraged and disappear from the system. Even if they don't earn a diploma, they may be able to pick up enough skills to survive, she said.

Velasquez said he has a simple goal: to do well in school, both for himself and his family's sake. And someday, he said, he hopes to master enough English to get a job helping other Latinos, just as his teachers at Gaithersburg have helped him.

2006 The Washington Post Company