Language barriers muffle student voices

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Language barriers muffle student voices

Graphics by Stella Schwartzman

Graphics by Stella Schwartzman

Graphics by Stella Schwartzman

Maya Wilson

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They weren’t sure how to get lunch from the cafeteria. Or swipe in after walking through security in the morning. They had some trouble navigating the metal detectors. And Algebra II. And soccer tryouts.

It takes a moment for every new student to fall into the rhythm of life at Wilson. But some students grapple with a distinct but subtle disadvantage in this initial adjustment period: They don’t speak English.

Wilson’s English Language Learner (ELL) program, formerly known as English as a Second Language (ESL), serves over 100 students, many of whom are new to the country and all of whom are new to English. The program is a medley of nationalities and ethnicities, students who’ve just arrived here and those who’ve been in the U.S. for years. Some courses are inclusion classes, where ELL students are mixed in with native English speakers, but other classes are “self-contained,” meaning they’re comprised entirely of ELL students.

Just like in any classroom, each student in the ELL program has a different confidence level and experience with the subject that dictates how they’ll perform, but this already challenging reality is augmented by the fact that this population doesn’t even have a common cultural or linguistic base of knowledge. Though a majority of students in the ELL program are Latino, it also includes immigrants from around the world.

Most ELL students’ first experiences of Wilson involve a combination of awe, fear, and the aforementioned confusion. “When I came to Wilson, it was a bit strange because there were only a few people who spoke Spanish,” explained Carla, who came to Wilson from El Salvador. “People yelled at me at lunch because I didn’t understand that they were telling me to type in my ID. In El Salvador, they only teach us numbers and colors, they don’t give you a base so that you know a lot of things.”

Rosa is also from El Salvador, but her first day at Wilson two years ago went a bit smoother than Carla’s, largely because Carla was there to help her out. “I didn’t have as many problems as she did because she was here when I came,” Rosa said, smiling at Carla. “She taught me.”

Eduardo came to the United States three years ago from Honduras. “My first impression was, ‘what a marvelous school. It’s big, there are more classes here,’” he said, explaining his first thoughts upon arriving at Wilson in October of his freshman year. Ximena had a different experience at her freshman orientation with other ELL students: “Everyone was on their phone because no one understood and no one knew what was happening,” she said.

The ELL experience is one largely characterized by inclusion and exclusion, which is especially apparent in the classroom. In integrated classes, the primary struggle is mastering English. ELL students are often ridiculed for their language skills and frequently struggle to find classmates who are willing to help them translate and understand material. Carla is currently repeating a math class she’s already taken because the English instruction left her baffled.  “I left it because the English was too advanced. I didn’t have other Latinos there who spoke Spanish and could tell me or help me,” she said. “I was only there to be there, I didn’t understand anything that happened.”

Such negligence is relatively common, but ELL students also regularly experience blatant rudeness in their inclusion classes. “Sometimes they laugh at us when we read in front of the class and we get full of color,” Eduardo explained. “Then they go to Spanish class and they can’t read well in Spanish and we can.”

This year, Eduardo is taking more inclusion classes than he has in the past, including algebra, chemistry, biomedical science, and sociology. “Students try to include me in the groups. Sometimes some of them try and integrate,” he said.

Ximena is also in a mix of ELL-only and integrated classes. “When I’m in regular classes, I don’t talk because I don’t want them to make fun of me,” she said. “I only talk to Latinos.”

ELL students also often feel unfairly targeted or misunderstood by their teachers in integrated classes. Shea has both witnessed this and had students confide such feelings in him over the years. “What was difficult especially when I first got to Wilson was that international students were not often well treated by the student body or the faculty. A lot of the faculty were really unhappy about foreign kids and treated them as if, ‘Well, I can’t teach these kids until they speak English,’” explained Jonathan Shea, who has been an ELL teacher at Wilson for 26 years. “ELL students go into [integrated] classes and they go from being very active participants in a room where they feel comfortable, to being very passive members of classes where they don’t.”

Naturally, issues exist within the ELL classes as well. “The size of the Spanish population sometimes makes things easier and more difficult at the same time because if you’re in a community that has a certain language and there’s enough of that group with you, your need to speak English socially falls,” Shea continued. “The joke is, and it’s not entirely false, that if you don’t speak Spanish when you come to Wilson’s ESL program, you will, because Spanish is the largest foreign language.”

Shea also identified the difficulty of having such varied academic backgrounds in one class. “That has a lot to do with where you live in a country and where your family came from, and that’s much more of a issue for Central Americans,” he said. Students who’ve been at Wilson longer often spend class helping the newcomers master material, which is wonderful, until it stymies the growth of the helpers. Ximena switched out of some inclusion classes into more ELL classes. “When I changed classes it was much easier because we were learning things I already knew,” she explained. But she doesn’t mind, and she maintained that helping others adjust is one of her favorite parts of being at Wilson: “We always support the new kids.”

One benefit of the ELL arrangement is the close bonds students form with ELL faculty. “You get really close to them, and they really rely on you, not just for English, but for social or life problems they might have,” explained Sarah Geisler, who teaches English to ELL students. “It’s kind of hard for them when they leave [ELL], but it’s like a family.”

The life problems Geisler mentioned turn out to be just as, if not more, impactful on ELL students than the academic ones. Principal Kimberly Martin outlined some of the struggles of coming from a foreign country: “Some of the cultural disconnects make it really hard for a child who’s trying to bridge two cultures. Also when they’re trying to work, they have family responsibilities that are unlike what most American kids have—it’s a lot,” Martin said. Indeed, some of these students are grappling with deserting their families and homes, many have experienced trauma, and they have to deal with all of this emotional complexity on top of the everyday chores of being in high school.”

“It’s very hard to come to school and to work,” Carla said. “We have a lot friends who sometimes stop studying to work because it’s more important. We have to work to maintain our families.” Carla works as a cashier at a restaurant multiple days a school week. “It’s hard with the schedules and everything. I’m always late to my first classes because I’m tired.”

The ELL students lean more heavily on their teachers than the average student, and as a result they’re full of kind words about their favorite faculty members. “He has always been there for me,” Carla said of Shea. If you poke your head into his room at STEP, you’ll see this in action. Shea often spends his lunch periods helping ELL students with their work and joking with them in his self-proclaimed Tarzan Spanish. “From the second I arrived here, she’s been there for me too,” Carla continued of ELL teacher Jennifer Satlin-Fernandez.

Another adult beloved by the ELL community is not a teacher, but nevertheless serves as their matriarch, and, oftentimes, saviour. Beth Perry’s official title at Wilson is Coordinator for New Heights, DCPS’ early parenthood preparation program, but her actual role extends well beyond that. Her office, tucked into the back of the nurses suite, is a haven where ELL students go for help, comfort, snacks, and water. “If it weren’t for Ms. Beth, we wouldn’t be good friends. She makes us a more united group,” Ximena said. “She’s been the support we’ve needed in this school,” Eduardo echoed.

Perry is a champion of deliberate self-inclusion. She works tirelessly, along with the other ELL teachers, to get their students to try out for sports and attend clubs and other events with varying degrees of success. Her campaign to get more Latino students onto Wilson soccer teams yielded disappointing results. “I tried out for soccer and I was the only Latina,” Rosa, who loves soccer, explained. “I didn’t try again, I only went one day. I couldn’t understand the coach.”

“They’re very intimidated. So it’s hard for them to feel natural about it, it’s like you have to push them,” Geisler said of encouraging students to be more involved in extracurriculars. “But the ones that do, I think they have a really good experience.” One group of ELL students is having such an experience on the wrestling team. “There’s more Latinos there,” Ximena said. “They help each other, and if someone doesn’t understand what the coach said the others can help.”

In general, the ELL community faces obstacles that prevent them from fully enjoying most of Wilson. One thing that they do fully revel in, however, is Hispanic Heritage Month. Many of the students talked about enjoying the activities—door decorating and dancing to Latin music in the atrium. But more than that, it’s the general sense of inclusivity and support that makes the end of September and the beginning of October many ELL students’ favorite time of year.

“There were a lot of people who were supporting us. They were nice, they said ‘yes, come,’ and things like that,” Carla said. “And when we made the food, different types of food, everyone was there. And at the dance, we were all dancing! But it was only for that month.”

This last declaration required some clarification. “You feel supported at Wilson in general, or only during that month?”

Rosa and Carla laughed and said together, “during that month.”

Wilson’s ELL program is distinct from other programs for newcomers across DCPS. Other high schools, such as Cardozo and Roosevelt, have much larger immigrant populations, which means that DCPS pays for them to be a part of a national program that establishes international academies. Martin said that she believes Wilson doesn’t qualify for the DCPS funding because our population is too small, but she further maintained that she’s satisfied with the program the way it is.

“Whenever I interact with schools that have the international academies, though it is terrific for assimilation purposes and for a lot of cultural purposes, to have kids that have commonality and shared experiences, to be able to embrace a new culture or a new environment in a thoughtful and systematic way, it also might be a little segregated,” Martin said. “I would be afraid of something like that happening here, if we were to have an international academy.”

Despite potential drawbacks, Shea lamented that Wilson teachers couldn’t go to the same ELL trainings as teachers from schools with international academies.

Beyond determining whether or not a school has an entire international academy or a smaller ELL program, DCPS’s hold on the community further manifests itself as a hyperfocus on graduating in four years. As previously explained, immigrant students confront a breadth of challenges unimaginable to their citizen peers, and many could benefit from a fifth year of high school to ease their assimilation and ensure they graduate prepared for the real world.

But DCPS basically prevents this allowance. Principals can be terminated after one bad evaluation, and their evaluations hinge heavily on their ability to consistently increase graduation rates. When students are given a extra year to graduate, they’re techincally counted as dropouts. Former Chancellor Antwan Wilson had begun talking about rolling back this restriction for ELL and special education students, but since Louis Ferebee has assumed the role of DCPS chancellor he has yet to make his stance on the issue clear.

The students, however, don’t pay much attention to studying a fifth year or being in an international academy. When asked what they’d like to see changed about Wilson in an ideal world, their answers were simple: “That everyone helps each other,” Carla said. “Even if you don’t speak Spanish, explain using other words. Just to always have someone.”

Real, authentic integration seems to be the desired goal. “If you’re only with Hispanic people, you’ll never learn English,” Carla continued. “And you need to learn English because this is a different country. You have to be able to communicate to walk down the street, to work, to buy food, and for everything.”