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Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as First Words

First Words

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Twelve-year-old Emilio Aranzana doesn’t say much of anything during his first day of school in the United States. Mostly, he nods.

"This is Emilio," his new teacher, Tammy C. Johnson, tells the 6th grade class at Waynewood Elementary School here. "I’d like you to welcome him and help him out."

Emilio gives a slight nod to each child, as his classmates go around the room introducing themselves.

Later, when the woman who runs the school’s computer lab asks him in Spanish if he had computers in his school in Peru, again he just nods.

Johnson has lined up a first-day buddy for him, a boy from El Salvador who has agreed to tell him in Spanish what’s happening, but the boys waste few words on each other. They’re still sizing each other up.

Emilio’s teacher says she imagines he is feeling a bit overwhelmed, entering a new school without knowing English on this spring day two months before the end of the school year. She says she won’t hover over him. Her main goal at first will be to let him get used to the routine.

But Emilio’s entrance into a new school might have been even more overwhelming had his family moved somewhere other than Virginia’s Fairfax County.

Thanks to the district’s centralized registration and assessment process, the Aranzanas arrived at Waynewood Elementary with their paperwork in order. Notified by the registration office that they were coming, the school had a Spanish-speaking staff member on hand in the main office to speak with the family.

"They take care of everything," Waynewood Principal Nancy J. Coughlan says of the staff at the intake center for language-minority students for the county schools. "It gives us the opportunity to welcome the children to the school and not have to worry about the registration or testing."

By the time for announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, Emilio and his twin sister, Margarita, are already sitting in their classrooms, and Margarita C. Barritt, the Spanish-speaking staff member, is showing their mother around the school.

By noon, when Emilio and Margarita enter their first English-as-a-second-language class, their teacher already has information in hand from the central registration office about the children’s English level and has prepared a bingo game, using English words, that will be appropriate for them.

By then, the twins are starting to loosen up a bit. During the course of the game, Emilio realizes he knows the word for one of the pictures on his bingo card. He points to the picture and speaks the word "window" aloud in English.

It’s the first English word he’s volunteered on his first day of school.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 42

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