English Feature #7-33793 Broadcast June 12, 2000
Today on New American Voices we'll focus on a local public high school not far from Washington, D. C. that has a large population of immigrant students.
To stand in front of Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, at 2:15 in the afternoon when classes are over for the day, is to see a mini-United Nations emerging from the spacious yellow brick building. The student that stream toward buses and cars, talking, laughing, jostling, and calling out to each other like young people let out of school the world over, are seemingly of every possible color, race and religion. Some girls, obviously Muslim, are wrapped in headscarves, but aside from that almost everyone is dressed in the ubiquitous teen uniform of blue jeans and colorful t-shirt.
"We have fifty-nine countries represented here, speaking 32 languages."
Dr. Thu Bui is the Assistant Principal of Marshall High School, and himself an immigrant from Vietnam.
"We are 1200 student here, and right now we have about 41 percent minority. Out of that we have I'd say 7 percent who are African-American, so subtract that and we have about 34 percent who are "language minority". 20 percent are Asians, 14 percent Hispanic, and about 1 percent "others."
According to Dr. Bui's statistics, Marshall has about 380 "language minority" students, that is, students who speak a language other than English at home. To help these kids overcome the language barrier, the school offers an intensive English As a Second Language program - or ESL, as it's called. Veteran ESL teacher Lindsay Spooner believes that language is a critical element in the way kids adjust to their new life in America.
"I think the process of adjustment is helped very much if the student knows some English. If somebody comes here knowing English, my perception is that they fit in fairly easily, particularly if they're put into ESL classes."
After a year or two of English As a Second language courses, most students of immigrant background at Marshall High School carry a full load of regular curriculum courses. One such student is sixteen-year-old Tara, born in Iran, who came to the U.S. four years ago.
"My name is Tara Himari, etc. (says hello in Farsi). I mostly take general classes. I used to have ESL classes, about like two years ago, but then I started having general classes. I take management information systems, which is a computer class, and then U.S. and Virginia history, which is typical, and then math, science, and Spanish, I take Spanish also."
Like any American high school, in addition to classes Marshall offers the students a wide variety of extracurricular activities - sports, clubs, organizations. These help young immigrants mix with other students in informal groups. Students of immigrant background are particularly drawn to the International Club.
"The International Club is a really good club, because like every person from every other country is there. We sit around, we talk about it, like about our countries, background, history, everything, we talk about it, and we do traditional things, like if it's a traditional holiday for one country we do traditional food, we dress up in traditional dresses that they would usually wear, and we just talk about that country."
Although Tara likes America and feels at home at Marshall, she still misses Iran.
"Oh, I miss a lot of things about my country. I miss my friends, my family, I even miss standing by my window and looking out to the mountains. I miss everything. I miss like just standing in the street and like breathing there."
The transition to an American high school may be difficult not only for the kids themselves, but for their families as well. In conjunction with the state of Virginia family services Marshall provides a counseling program called RAP - Resource Action Program. Dr. Bui describes how it works.
"If we have a case of students who we feel like they can't adjust, then we would refer to these RAP counselors."
As to the kinds of problems that the counselors deal with most often:
"Mostly it's problems of adjustment. Sometimes problems within the family. As you know, kids growing up in this country, they learn the American way while the parents are still hanging on to their tradition. So there are conflicts. We help resolve conflicts between children and parents."
The programs that Marshall offers its immigrant students are fairly typical of those offered by other high schools in the area. One aspect of its English as a Second Language courses is unique, however - the textbooks are written by the students themselves. More about this next week, on New American Voices.