Imagine that you have moved with your family to Russia and don't speak the language. Your family speaks English, you speak English but everyone around you speaks Russian. You want to learn the new language but you don't recognize the Russian alphabet, you don't know the culture, you feel dislocated and uncertain. English language learners (ELLs) in the Jamestown Public Schools experience these challenges daily. But, even with these obstacles, there are many success stories of ELLs acquiring proficiency in the English language and succeeding academically at a high level.
Jamestown High School sophomore Marcos Melendez is one such example. Upon his arrival from Puerto Rico two years ago, he was enrolled in the ESL Program as an eighth-grader at Washington Middle School. He tested out of the ESL Program after just over one year.
"I spoke some English when I arrived," said Marcos. "But it was incredibly hard to understand the teachers and students in class. I credit my ESL teachers, Mrs. Hansen and Mrs. Cass, with how quickly I became proficient in English. Learning English is incredibly complicated, there are many loopholes in the language and vocabulary. But I was focused and my ESL teachers helped me learn different strategies. I plan to go to college and major in criminal justice. However, it's still important to keep my native language as it will benefit me later in life to be bilingual."
Jamestown High School sophomore Marcos Melendez solves a problem during Denise Pusateri’s class.
There is no "typical" English language learner. They come from many different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and a wide variety of life experiences. While many ELLs in Jamestown speak Spanish as their first language, the ESL program has also served children from Germany, Russia, China, India, Japan and Iraq. Many ELLs were good students in their native countries but until they have the opportunity to become proficient in English, they struggle to progress in subjects like science or math, which are taught only in English and require content-specific vocabulary.
"It's important to understand that ESL students need extra help and support to learn English. I don't think the general public realizes how difficult it is to truly become proficient in another language," said Tamu Reinhardt, JPS' Coordinator of ESL/Foreign Languages. "There is a huge difference between able to speak English in a social conversation and being proficient in English in an academic situation, which requires formal reading and writing. Research shows that it takes one to three years to develop social English, but seven to 10 years to become proficient in English at the academic level."
After only one year of residence in the United States, ELLs must meet NYS testing and graduation requirements in all subjects, and are expected to demonstrate the same level of proficiency as fluent English speakers. Students are challenged to learn formal academic English at a much faster pace than might otherwise be expected.
Ring Elementary School fifth-grader Abnel Avila-Burgos knows this firsthand. He arrived in fourth grade from Puerto Rico speaking a small amount of English and achieved proficiency in just one year.
"I tried my very best to learn English as soon as I could," said Abnel. "I had a teacher in Puerto Rico who would read in English so I had heard it before. Now, I love science and want to go to college to become a veterinarian."
Success for an ELL requires more than just learning the language. "The ESL students that succeed are those who have parental involvement, support of the whole school in their content areas and ESL instruction." said Ring Elementary School ESL teacher Durrin See. "There are many challenges for ESL students. Our job is not to use that as an excuse but to work extra hard to help these students succeed."
Among the many challenges for ELLs learning to read are for example, an abundance of idioms in English texts, use of homonyms and synonyms, grammar usage and "exceptions to the rules," and unfamiliarity of vocabulary, drawing conclusions, analyzing characters and predicting outcomes.
Each year, ELLs are required to take the New York State English as Second Language Achievement Test, which measures their progress in developing skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English. The State Education Department requires that students reach proficiency in all areas in order to be released from the ESL program.
Persell Middle School seventh grader Erros Quinonez is another success story. He arrived from Puerto Rico in kindergarten and reached English proficiency within two years of attending Love School. "The ESL classes gave me more practice. I knew some English words but didn't know how to put them in a sentence. I'm proud that I learned English but it's also going to help me in my future to know two languages," said Erros who wants to go to college, play basketball and major in math or science.
"There is something very special about Erros," said Persell Middle School math teacher Jennifer Panebianco. "He works incredibly hard and asks questions when he doesn't understand a concept. I didn't even know that Erros had been an ELL. He learns as well, or better, than any student in my AT Math classes."
Danny Vargas, a Ring Elementary School fourth grader, arrived at Love School in kindergarten knowing very little English and tested out of the ESL program within three years. "I am proud of myself for learning English," said Danny. "I'm going to college and want to be an artist, a mechanical engineer or a firefighter."
"Danny is an active and engaged learner," said his teacher Denise Powers. "He is an excellent participant during classroom discussions and does not hesitate to read, answer questions, or share his thoughts verbally."
Jamestown High School sophomore Jaylenette Pagan is a former ELL who reached English language proficiency in fourth grade at Ring Elementary School. "It was very challenging learning English, especially the verb tenses. The ESL classes helped me in all my studies," said Jaylenette who enjoys science and plans to attend college to become an optometrist. "But it is also important to keep your native language as it helps keep your culture going and gives you an advantage."
"I think it's important for students to keep their native language and sense of identity," said Mrs. Rhinehart. "We as a community take pride in our Italian, Irish or Swedish cultures, why would the Hispanic or Japanese culture be any different? Students are just as proud of their heritage and want to maintain their culture while acclimating to their new home. We are here to help them do that, and become successful students, in the best possible way."