In Margaret Garsetti’s English as a second language classroom at the Springs School, a group of seven junior high school girls from four different countries sat down to discuss their experiences making the transition into not just a new school, but a new culture and language.
With varying degrees of skill in English, some, like Melissa Castro, from Colombia, are graduates of the program, having “tested out,” by passing the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test, years ago.
Others, like Madeline and Melissa Lopez, sisters who moved here this year, are new to the program, and still adjusting to what can be an overwhelming environment at times.
Although the sisters attended school regularly in the Dominican Republic, they are what educators would call “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE kids. In their home country, they spent about an hour a day in school. Students of varying backgrounds fall into that category. Some have had little or no education at all, while others have moved around so much that they haven’t been to school in years.
For Melissa, who came to Springs as a third-grade student and has since moved into Regents-level honors classes, the experience was quite different. “In Colombia, I remember the subjects were much, much harder. I completely love the teachers [in Springs]; they really explain everything well. They’re fun, not strict,” she said, offering a glimpse into what her former education was like, and a stark contrast to the experiences of some of her peers.
As each girl told her story, they intertwined like fibers in a giant tapestry. Most were separated from family members for extended periods of time. One girl has not seen her mother in six years. The older girls don’t offer information about crossing borders, but the trials some children have gone through show up in other areas, like their art.
Ms. Garsetti, who has been teaching E.S.L. at Springs for more than a decade, used one child’s picture book autobiography as an example. “When I was 5, I started kindergarten,” it read, with a child’s self-portrait drawn in crayon, the letters of a new language written tenuously between parallel lines.
“Then next year, I crossed the desert.” That page was accompanied by an ominous drawing of fences and gun-wielding soldiers. (This kid actually “crossed the desert” twice, Ms. Garsetti said. The first time, he was held in prison before being deported, only to try again.)
“When I was 7, I got my first dog,” the story continued on a more lighthearted note. “When I was 8, I met my first girlfriend.”
“The one thing I don’t think people realize is the extra steps that parents take to get their kids over here,” said Ms. Garsetti. During her time teaching, she has heard some tales of travel so horrific she would not feel comfortable seeing them in print. “We get kids who cry very day,” while for others, it’s easier to adjust, she said.
Ms. Garsetti started her career at Springs 13 years ago, and has seen the E.S.L. program evolve along with the student population.
About 50 percent of the kids at Springs are demographically considered Latino — but there are not enough E.S.L. students to meet the criteria for a bilingual program, like the one at John Marshall that was the subject of a previous article in The Star.
“If we had five classes per grade we probably would,” said Ms. Garsetti. “What we are here is a freestanding E.S.L. program. We have two teachers, one kindergarten through two, and the other three through eight.”
As one might expect, running an E.S.L. program “is a scheduling nightmare” that teachers and administrators try to make the best of. “The only thing by law the students cannot miss is gym — and we don’t pull them out during math time, we try to do it during reading and writing class time,” when students would most likely be confused, Ms. Garsetti said.
For her, “It’s easier to teach the older ones, because when a child has literacy in their fist language, it’s easier. The difficult part is actually learning the mechanics of the language. English is impossible — adverbs, prepositions, two, to, and too.” It can be maddening for a teacher to explain.
But being an E.S.L. teacher isn’t all about drilling vocabulary words. “It’s a big part of our job even to teach boundaries,” like the appropriate distance to stand while talking to someone. “There’s a clash of the cultures,” she said, offering anecdotes like one about Russian student who was standoffish to the young Latino boys in her class.
With such a high population of Spanish-speaking immigrants here, it is easy to forget that E.S.L. programs were designed to help students from all sorts of backgrounds. A teacher need not speak the native language to teach a student English.
“I had all four of the Islami girls. They’re so resilient,” said Ms. Garsetti.
“There was a war going on between the Serbs and Albania, so we had to get out,” said Hana Islami, an articulate eighth grader who is the youngest of her sisters. It was harder for them, she said, because they remember more. Today, Cinthia Lopez, who hails from Ecuador, is one of Hana’s best friends. They sat side by side in elementary school E.S.L. classes, learning English together.
Still, for the most part, E.S.L. students at Springs, of which there are about 60 (out of 712 students), are overwhelmingly Latino. “It’s changed tremendously since 13 years ago. Maybe about 16 to 18 percent of the students were Latino. Now it’s half” students of Latino descent, she said. The number of kids she and Alexandra McCourt, the other E.S.L. teacher, are charged with has more than doubled.
Ms. Garsetti is not sure how she would feel about a bilingual program, in which an entire classroom of students is isolated and taught in English and Spanish. In the evolution of the program at Springs, already, she has noticed it takes kids longer to achieve proficiency.
“I think what’s happening with us is, 10 years ago the students didn’t have anyone to rely on. They were absolutely learning English much faster . . . because we’re now becoming so proficient in Spanish, our students are taking much longer.”
“For many reasons I’d like them to be more immersed in the English language,” she said. “Yes, it is wonderful to be bilingual, and that’s definitely the goal of any E.S.L. program, but it takes so much work to be academically proficient.”
Alongside students who have crossed borders to come here, there is a new, growing population of E.S.L. students who were born in the United States but speak Spanish at home — that is, until they get to kindergarten.
“Even if you had a bilingual kindergarten,” the grade most likely to qualify for such a program, because of the population, “the state still mandates they have E.S.L. services. You really would need to have a very hearty budget to start something like that.” Springs does not.
In the meantime, the Springs School Board, in response to repeated requests by parents, has started a new elementary Spanish program, aimed at American students, that may result in bilingual literacy.
At a recent board meeting, parents and administrators applauded the success of the weekly Spanish electives.
When a new E.S.L. student starts at Springs, they are paired with a buddy — another native Spanish speaker who helps them to adjust to their new environment and often acts as a translator in class.
In elementary Spanish classes, students like those are now helping American kids to become bilingual. “I’m doing my best to pair them up with someone” in early Spanish classes, said Michael Kelley, who runs the program. “All of a sudden, they have this Spanish-speaking friend they’re starting to converse with, in Spanish.”
Despite tensions over immigration and its resultant impact on school taxes, administrators, teachers, and parents at the Springs School have taken strides to make the best of the cultural diversity the population has to offer. With a tighter budget than neighboring districts, Thomas Talmage, a board member, once said the school’s motto is: “We do more with less.”
“Maybe there are a lot of things we could hope for,” said Ms. Garsetti. But with a supportive principal, Eric Casale, and a warm school community, “I just feel so lucky to be here.”