Reyhaneh Fathieh will be a sophomore this fall at the University of Virginia, but she hasn’t forgotten how hard it was to enter U.S. schools as an 11-year-old without knowing English.
That is why she took a job this summer as a student assistant to help immigrant youths in her community learn English and adjust to American culture. “I just want to let them know that it’s possible to become completely fluent in English and do whatever you want in this country,” she said on her fourth day on the job.
Ms. Fathieh is one of three former English-as-a-second-language students hired by the Prince William County, Va., schools to work in a six-week summer school program for 57 high school students who have been in the United States for three years or less.
The three ESL veterans were hired so that they could be friends to the newcomers and help them realize that they, too, can succeed, said Carol Bass, who supervises programs for English-language learners for the 62,000-student district.
Deborah J. Short, the director of the language education and academic division of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said the arrangement could be a model for similar programs.
“The newcomers need not only the language but the cultural orientation—both to school culture and the American culture,” she said. “These [former ESL] students who have learned how to navigate schools in the U.S. are valuable resources.”
Ms. Fathieh, 19, moved with her family to Virginia from Iran eight years ago. She barely spoke for the first six months in her 5th grade class because she was afraid she’d make mistakes.
She also had to get used to a new way of learning. In the United States, she added, “you’re not expected to memorize so much as you are expected to generally understand.”
But by high school, Ms. Fathieh was outperforming most of her classmates. She and her sister, Banafsheh Fathieh, who is 18 months younger, graduated as the valedictorians of their senior classes at Hylton Senior High School in Woodbridge, Va.
They credit their success to their parents’ focus on education, to the work of a competent ESL teacher, and to their need to speak English at school because hardly anyone there spoke their native language, Farsi.
This summer, the two sisters and one other former ESL student are working from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Osbourn Park Senior High School here in Manassas.
Many of the students they work with use a minimal amount of English to express ideas.
And students often signal the completion of an assignment by announcing “finish.”
The teacher for the science class, Jenny Enriquez de Bermant, notes that many of the 13 students in her class are at a stage in which their English listening skills are much stronger than their speaking skills. She compels them to practice the language.
In a joking tone, she assigns Reyhaneh Fathieh, the student assistant, to be a “policewoman” to ensure the students are speaking in English, not Spanish, in small groups. But when Ms. Fathieh makes her rounds, the students also ask her to explain some of the vocabulary in their assignment, which she does in English.
Ms. Fathieh’s presence is valuable, said Ms. Enriquez de Bermant, because the students will ask her questions that they might not ask a teacher. “With me, they don’t want to be embarrassed,” she said.
The different experiences of the student assistants illustrate that not all students learn English at the same rate. Ms. Bass said much depends on immigrants’ education and literacy levels in their native languages.
The Fathieh sisters, for instance, spent one school year in ESL classes, but Elmer Moreno, a native of Bolivia who is the third student assistant, spent the last three years in ESL classes. At age 18, he enrolled in 9th grade at the Prince William district’s Gar-Field Senior High School, and he graduated this spring at age 22.
Mr. Moreno finished 11th grade in Bolivia, but said he hadn’t taken school very seriously. “It was hard at first” to learn English, he said. “I had to work and study hard—especially the verbs.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Former ESL Students Tapped as Class Aides