In some schools, growing diversity means language challenges
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Wesal Wardeh, 13 years old, confidently walks the halls of John Q. Adams Middle School in Metairie. The soft-spoken seventh-grader with the hijab and the quick smile bounces between classes while chatting with friends, just another young teen in a sea of them.
When she arrived at the 230-student school less than two years ago, however, it wasn't so easy for her to feel comfortable. She knew barely any English and had just fled with her family from Homs, Syria, one of the cities hardest hit in a brutal civil war.
It was tough to adjust, said Wesal, who now converses in English. When she arrived, she said, "I'm scared because I don't know anybody."
In the Jefferson Parish school district, stories like Wesal's have become increasingly common. Among the district's nearly 50,000 students are more than 7,700 who are classified as English Language Learners, far more than in any other district in the state.
At about 16 percent, the number of students learning English in Jefferson Parish schools is more than double the rate in the next highest parish, East Baton Rouge, according to state data. It's also higher than the national average, which hovered just below 10 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
"It's an issue that very few systems in Louisiana are facing," Jefferson Parish Superintendent Cade Brumley said.
Urban districts in other parts of the country are confronting similar challenges, Brumley said. But he said he hasn't found a model program with a "wow" factor on how to handle the problem, particularly when it comes to dealing with an array of different languages.
The majority of ELL's in Jefferson Parish are Spanish-speakers, but students speak approximately 50 languages in all.
The school system produces documents in four languages: English, Arabic, Spanish and Vietnamese. Many others are spoken though, according to data from the system. Urdu, one of the main languages of Pakistan, is spoken by 63 students. Another 69 speak Portuguese, while 11 speak Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
More than two dozen speak the Philippine language Tagalog. There are also native speakers of Wolof, from western Africa; Gujarati, from India; Aymara, an indigenous language from Bolivia and Peru; and many others.
It's a bewildering array that can enrich a school and the district, even as it complicates the task faced by educators and administrators. That's particularly true as leaders seek to reverse the trend of sagging performance scores for the district.
During spring 2018, only 11 percent of the system's ELL students earned a "mastery" rating in English language arts. The rate was even lower for math: just 3.4 percent of ELL students earned "mastery" rating. Mastery is the second highest rating, behind "advanced" and ahead of "basic."
Brumley, who took over the 85-school district that stretches from Kenner to Grand Isle in March, said the system needs to rise to the task.
"We have to build a more comprehensive plan around how we better service our English Language Learners," he said. "It's very high on our list of challenges."
The classification "English Language Learner" is very broad. It includes some students who were born in this country — more than 1,300 of Jefferson's ELL students are from the United States — and others who have been in the country two years or more. It also includes those who arrived in the United States just days before showing up at the school.
Some of those students — like Wesal, or Ranya Alsayegh, an eighth-grader from Mosul, Iraq — came from countries in the middle of civil tumult or war. Others endured difficult journeys before arriving in southeast Louisiana. Some have joined relatives they may only have just met.
Now they are trying to adjust not just to a new school and family, but to an entire culture.
Maria Irula-Lau can relate. In the early 1980s, she arrived at Bonnabel High School from her home in Honduras. She didn't speak a word of English, and she didn't know anyone.
"I would cry. I would get lost," she said of those dizzying first weeks. "I felt so alone and lonely." But she persevered, and now she teaches ELL students in Jefferson Parish, at her alma mater.
"The biggest challenge is not having a sense of belonging, not only to their families, but also to their school or community," she said.
Irula-Lau starts every day with a family meeting time, where students can raise any concerns that they have. She meets with students before school, or at lunch, or after school to talk about any issues.
She meets with parents. Sometimes she becomes a surrogate parent, especially to the girls, she said.
"I will hug them. I tell them, 'I care for you,' " she said. "When they see that you care about them as a person, they are willing to go that extra mile for you."
At other schools, like John Q. Adams, the situation is more complicated. Most of the ELL students speak Spanish, but Arabic is also widespread. And in some places, Chinese or Vietnamese is common.
Adams teacher Esther Perez-Zemmels sometimes has eight or more different languages in her class. She is a fluent Spanish speaker, but when she needs to communicate with a student who speaks a different language, she uses a translation app on her phone. If that fails, she can call a subscription phone service that will help translate.
The state is trying to help parishes adapt to growing ELL populations through teacher training, said Beverly Diaz, the Louisiana Department of Education's director of English learners and world languages. Professional development is the key, she said.
"We need all the teachers to be prepared," she said. "It's a huge challenge."
One change already taking root is the way students are learning English. Rather than the intensive language instruction of the past, the students are being taught "language through content." Subjects such as history or math are taught in English, even to newcomers.
In Perez-Zemmels' classroom last week, a chart showed Louisiana sugar production over the years as part of a social studies class being taught to newcomers. The statistics measured 19th century sugar production in hogshead barrels, a popular volume measurement in the Louisiana sugar industry.
"What is a barrel?" Perez-Zemmels asked her students. "What does it mean?"
"Un barril?" a student ventured in Spanish. "Yes!" Perez-Zemmels responded, then moved to another word in the slide. "What does it mean 'to show'?" she asked, pointing to her earring as an example.
One of the students, she noted, had just arrived within the last week from Venezuela, a country embroiled in political and economic crisis. "It makes it so hard for them," she said.
It wasn't easy for Wesal when she arrived. But within Adams' diverse student body, she quickly made friends. Two of those, Khadija, from Yemen, and Fiona, from Burkina Faso, are her constant companions. The three are "inseparable," Perez-Zemmels said. Having such good friends helped ease Wesal's transition.
Teachers like Perez-Zemmels have helped too. "They care about us," Wesal said.
Another student at the school, eighth-grader Anthony Galvez, also praised the teachers at Adams. When he grows up, he said, he wants to be a U.S. Marine so that he can "protect the people and help people."
He said the school has been a welcoming place.
"I like my friends, the teacher and how they teach," he said. "They have a lot of stuff in here."
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com