In high schools across America these are the last few days of the school year. Students are finishing up final exams and turning in projects, searching for overdue library books, cleaning out their lockers, signing each other’s yearbooks. We visited Montgomery Blair High School in a suburb of Washington, D. C. and talked with a group of foreign-born students about their plans for the summer, and beyond.
Out of the three thousand students who attended Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, this year, one thousand were born in other countries. Understandably, the English-for-speakers-of other-languages, or ESOL, classes at Blair are well attended. The director of the ESOL program, Joe Bellino, says he has students from 52 countries, speaking 36 languages. By and large, he says, they are model students.
“Students who don’t speak English well know that English is important to be successful in this country, so the motivation to learn English and to succeed is very high. So as a rule, they are very motivated, very hard-working. They have a lot to learn, and the stakes are very high, the standards are very high – and we are successful in getting kids to get out and make something of themselves.”
One of Mr. Bellino’s students is fifteen-year-old Quyhn Nguyen, who came with her family from Vietnam six years ago. She is looking forward to a busy summer.
“I’m going to go work, you know, I need to get myself a little money. And I’m going to do volunteer work to get my community service hours, I’m trying to get like two or three hundred community service hours, so that when I graduate I get a special award.”
Like many area high schools, Montgomery Blair has a program that combines service with learning, and requires students to do volunteer work in their communities. Quynh Nguyen plans to continue working in a social service agency that helps immigrants overcome the small obstacles of everyday life.
“I used to work for this community next to my house, it’s sort of like social work, like where you help people to translate letters, or help people to apply for food stamps or welfare, like that stuff. I go there to help them organize their papers and documents, and update information.”
Quynh has one more year of high school to go. She is very clear about what she wants to do next.
“I want to go to college, definitely. Right now, I want to study international business, because I want to travel around the world, like, to meet new people, and, like, go back to my country and open a little business there. I’m going to live here and travel back and forth.”
Another student, Balla Kaba, came from Guinea in West Africa only nine months ago. At the time he spoke no English, but thanks to Blair’s ESOL classes, he can now communicate quite well. He plans to spend the summer improving his English even further.
“I want to go to summer school to catch up on my English, because next year I will be going to ESOL Two.”
Since he has only just begun his American education, and still has two years to go before he graduates from high school, Balla Kaba is uncertain aboutwhat he wants to be when he grows up.
“Maybe a chef, or maybe I’ll join the army. Maybe a chef-cook for the army. I don’t know. I’m waiting to know English very well before I decide.”
On the other hand, senior Solange Francois, who immigrated from Haiti four years ago, knows precisely what she wants to do with her life.
“Actually, I have two goals, and I want to be a gynecologist and I want to be a model. I just want both, and hopefully I’ll get to be both of them, because I like the two of them.”
After graduation this summer, Solange will be working in a local movie theatre, earning money for college. In the fall she will enroll in North Carolina’s Wesslyan College to study biology, after which she hopes to go to medical school. She can hardly wait to graduate and start the next phase of her life.
“I’m really looking forward to it, because now I’m going to be in the real world, and I’m going to be doing everything on my own, because I’m moving out of state, so basically I have to do what I want to do, what’s safe for me, what’s better for my life, for my future, and everything. I want to change, I want to see other things besides just Maryland, I want to meet other people, new people. I want to travel, that’s what I want.”
Having taught immigrant students like these for thirty years, Joe Bellino has a unique perspective on how their hopes and dreams in high school can be transformed into reality in the years that follow.
“Many of my former students are… now I’m clients of them. For example, my dentist is one of my students, my mechanic is one of my students, one of my students is an architect, one is a journalist. So, they make it, and it’s because they push themselves. You know, for many of the students, their parents didn’t have the opportunities that they have here, so they want to take advantage of them. Seeing kids make it is a great satisfaction.”
Veteran ESOL teacher Joe Bellino, and foreign-born students at Montgomery Blair High School preparing for summer – and for life.