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One High School’s Courses for Immigrants - 2003-12-01


Washington, D.C. has one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the nation. Local schools reflect this influx of newcomers from all over the world, and try, in various ways, to help the youngsters who come from other countries adjust to living in the United States. Today on New American Voices we continue our visit to Annandale High School in Northern Virginia, where we’ll meet some of the people running the school’s programs for immigrant students.

Mrs. Robin Thompson, who directs the English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program at Annandale High School says the school is sensitive to the immigrant students’ needs.

“A lot of it has to do with the attitude of the teachers and the administration, making the students feel that we’re not asking them to give up their own culture and their own heritage, but at the same time we’re asking them to learn something and to enrich themselves this way.”

Almost half of Annandale High School’s 2500 students –- 1042, to be exact -- were born in other countries. Mrs. Thompson says the ESOL program includes students from most of the 92 countries represented in the school’s population. She explains the process by which the students are assigned to ESOL classes.

“When the students come into the county they go through a central registration office where they are tested to see whether they have any English language skills. And if they don’t, they go into beginning level classes. And beginning level students would take three different ESOL classes, and in addition they would get a special class designed to teach them some basic social studies concepts and vocabulary and some basic science concepts and vocabulary.”

The students are not segregated by country of origin, so in each ESOL class you might have children who speak eight or nine different languages. Instruction is all in English.

“But as you can imagine at the very early levels, more than using spoken language you’re using a lot of gestures, a lot of facial expressions, a lot of acting out in order to communicate. And we do try to pair up a brand-new student who doesn’t speak any English with someone who speaks their language, to help ease that transition.”

Mrs. Thompson notes that the ESOL program is not just about the English language.

“We try to teach them about some of the customs that may be unfamiliar to them, and we also try to give them some basic vocabulary and skills that they can take outside the ESOL classes, so they can be successful in mainstream classes, as well.”

Twenty-year-old Tiffany Pham is a successful product of Annandale High School’s English For Speakers of Other Languages program. When Tiffany came to the United States from Vietman three years ago, she barely knew a few words of English. Now, after two years in the ESOL program, her English languague skills allow her to attend regular, mainstream classes.

“The ESOL classes were very helpful. Actually at the beginning I can’t speak, I can’t hear anything. But the teachers are so nice, and step by step make me understand. If I don’t understand something, they patiently explained it. And that’s great. But teachers are one part of being successful. Another way is I have to study more at home, listen to the television, read books and learn more of the vocabulary.”

Tiffany’s dream is to become a lawyer, but she’s worried that language might be a hurdle. So although she would like to participate in some of the extracurricular activities Annandale High School offers – sports, music, various clubs – at this point Tiffany, a senior, is focused on studying to pass the English-language and Scholastic Aptitude Tests that will improve her chances for college admission.

“You know, this year is very hard for me, because I have to take SAT and TOEFL, and for a person like me, who has been here only three years, I have to study more, I have to go home after school, go to the library straight, and then study so I can get the best scores, and the college will accept me.”

For those immigrant students who already know some English, Annandale High offers separate classes in what they call “life skills”, to help them better deal with the society in which they now live. These are taught by twenty-five-year-old Evelyn Hsia, an American whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan.

“Right now we just finished conflict resolution, and in the second quarter we’re going to go into how to manage your money, so we’re going to talk about budgeting. And hopefully in the third quarter we’re going to go into jobs, how to look for jobs, and also how to get to college, what to do to apply to college.”

While teaching her students the practical skills needed to get around in a new country, Ms Hsia encourages them to share aspects of their native culture with the others in their class.

“We just finished a project called ‘unique ME collage’, and it’s basically talking about their background, who they are, why are they unique, why are they different from other people. So you can see that the American culture, with the fashion, and the movies, that’s going into their lives now, and you also see some of the stuff from their countries that’s incorporated into their lives. And it also teaches the other students about other countries and about other cultures, and that’s really neat. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m working in this field, because it’s so fascinating to learn about other people’s cultural backgrounds."

It’s interesting to note that eighty percent of Annandale High School graduates go on to college. Of this year’s graduating class, 48 percent went to 4-year colleges and universities, 31 percent to 2-year colleges, and 21 percent to business schools, technical schools, the military or the work force.

English Feature # 7-38096 Broadcast December 1, 2003

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