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Immigrants in a Math Class - 2002-11-18

English Feature #7-36924 Broadcast November 18, 2002

The Washington suburb of South Arlington, Virginia, has become a mecca for newcomers to this country. In the past ten years some 7,800 immigrants from 128 countries have settled there. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet a teacher and some students at a local school that reflects the area’s diversity.

On Fridays, Arlington Mill High School Continuation Program math teacher Thomas Levay gives his students a break from their regular lessons. With a tape of guitar music playing in the background, they can practice their computer skills, catch up on reading, or even play games – like cards or chess – that have some mathematical aspect. Of the 18 students in Mr. Levay’s class, one is a native-born American. Twelve are from various countries in Latin America, and the rest from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Mr. Levay says he enjoys teaching such a diverse group.

“Immigrant students are usually students with the best attitudes. Our students are also a little bit older, but they seem to be eager to learn and they appreciate the opportunity to learn. And I think they recognize math to be an important subject in the modern world.”

Mr. Lavey admits that there are some problems that he, as a teacher, faces in dealing with a class of immigrant students.

“A potential downside is that students sometimes have very little background. They have almost no formal education, some students. You have some students from, you know, it could be anywhere, where they have a lot of formal education, they know a great deal, where perhaps their main problem is they don’t know English. And then on the other hand you have another student in the same classroom who has almost no formal education, all they know about math they learned in our school. And because the school is small a lot of these students get mixed together in the same class when perhaps they shouldn’t be.”

One of the oldest students in the class is 25-year-old Aidrus Mohamad from Somalia. Back home he had spent his time studying the Koran and working as a mechanic, fixing radios, television sets, small motors. He says that when he immigrated to the United States with his family 3 years ago he knew no English.

“I don’t know nothing when I come to this country. But I’m learning now, I speak a little bit. Because I study every day in this school, and sometimes I’m listening to the TV, I’m listening to news, and I learn a little bit.”

Mr. Mohamad, who is African, Muslim, and handicapped – he uses a wheelchair – says that he faced no discrimination on any of these counts when he moved to the South Arlington community.

“No, no, no. Because I had nice relationships and good friends in Arlington. You know, Arlington is a nice place, good people, nobody can make you discrimination [discriminate against you]. They are all good friends, good people in Arlington.”

Another student in Mr. Levay’s class, Karolay Galdo, came to the United States from Bolivia only eight months ago. Karolay’s mother works as a housekeeper to earn money to support the family, and Karolay herself helps out by working weekends at a local McDonald’s fast food restaurant. One day soon she hopes to go to college to study electrical engineering. Meanwhile, this country is still fresh and new to her.

“I like it because this country is big. I like English class, teachers, because they are good persons, every teacher, the students are different, but it’s good.”

The lone native-born American in Thomas Levay’s math class, 18-year-old John, spent Friday’s free period playing cards with his friends Vireak from Cambodia and Max from Nicaragua.

“I love this school, personally. Cause I’ve been to a whole bunch of different schools in the school system, and this is the best. Because the teachers actually try to help you, they actually care, they’ll stay with you after class and give you all the special attention you need.”

John says he also loves the diversity of the student body.

“I think it’s great. Because you get out in the real world, you know, and not everybody’s one race, there’s other people out there, and you gotta learn to respect everyone for who they are, and it gives you a chance to get exposed to that.”

Teacher Thomas Levay is himself of immigrant background. His father is Hungarian, his mother Peruvian. Mr. Levay says he became a teacher because he wanted to do something positive for the community. Teaching math to immigrant kids, he says, gives him particular satisfaction.

“I feel very positively about helping people who need help and who appreciate that help. When you have a student who’s twenty years old, who’s come from a country where the opportunities are much less, or even the country is torn by war or something like that, poverty, then they come here, and they’re very appreciative of the opportunity to learn, they’re very grateful, and they try hard. And it’s a very rewarding experience to help them.”

A teacher and some students at Arlington Mill High School Continuation Program –- a school that accepts older students and tailors its teaching methods to their needs -- in the Washington suburb of South Arlington, Virginia.