Yes, Students with Interrupted Formal Education Can Catch Up

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 02, 2009 1 min read
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Insiders in the field of educating English-language learners toss around a term that applies to a growing number of ELLs in this country. They are “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE.

Lynne Ellingwood, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who frequently comments on this blog, shared with me a story published this week in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle about a SIFE student of hers who was born in the West African country of Togo and arrived in the United States without any formal schooling at about age 10. The student, Marius “Mimi” Kothor, is graduating from high school this month and has a full scholarship to the University of Rochester.

What’s interesting to me about the story is how it took a very long time—until high school—for Kothor to find her educational stride. More than a year after her arrival, Ellingwood said she was shy and seemed depressed and some teachers suspected she had a learning disability. Over time, she was able to catch up with her peers and excelled as a student. She didn’t have a learning disability.

So the lesson here seems to be that educators should be very careful not to jump to conclusions about the academic potential of SIFE students when they first arrive in this country. New York City is a school district with a lot of SIFE students that is attempting to make procedures more formal to screen these students for placement, which I wrote about this spring.

The Salt Lake City school district has a lot of such students. So do the New York City school district and the St. Paul, Minn., school district. So do schools in Sacramento, Calif., and Lewiston, Maine.

Virtually any community that is a common destination for refugees receives a lot of students who have had little or no schooling. A cutting-edge area of this field is for educators to figure out how best to support them academically.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.