For kids going back to school after the three-month summer vacation, the new school year is filled with uncertainties. Will their friends from last year be back? What will the new teachers be like? Will they like the food in the school cafeteria? And so on. But imagine the uncertainties for children who are new immigrants going to school for the first time in the United States. Today on new American Voices, we’ll introduce you to a ten-year-old Korean girl, Ji Eun Song, who just enrolled in Columbia Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
Of the 360 students at Columbia Elementary School, which has classes from kindergarten to fifth grade, about ninety are from immigrant families. They represent more than 30 countries, from Afghanistan and Israel to Ethiopia and the Congo, from Honduras to Bulgaria. Many of the children have been here for at least a year or two. But Ji Eun Song came to the United States with her parents only three months ago. Understandably, the first day of school was not easy for her.
“Since this is my first time in America and an American school, no friend was around, and I felt very nervous.”
The principal of Columbia Elementary School, Stephanie Daugherty, says it’s a challenge for immigrant children to get used to a new school environment and a new language. But since Columbia Elementary is located in an area that has seen a large influx of new immigrants in recent years, it has a system in place to help the kids adjust.
“When we have new immigrants here entering in school, we try very hard to help them feel at ease. We know it’s a challenge for every one involved, particularly if the child does not speak English. So we pair that child with another student from their country who has more command of the English language. And we make sure that the child’s teacher has activities that are appropriate.”
The teachers plan activities for the new immigrant students that help integrate them into regular classes. In the meantime, they attend what are known as ESOL classes – English for Speakers of Other Languages. Public schools throughout the United States are required to provide ESOL instruction for students who speak another language at home. These classes, which are in addition to the regular curriculum, teach language arts, reading, writing, and oral listening skills. In one ESOL class at Columbia Elementary School are students are from Colombia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Bolivia. Joanne Smith, the teacher, says that there are other benefits for the immigrant children than just learning English in the ESOL classes.
“In the ESOL classrooms the first thing they learn is tolerance for other people’s language, culture, dress, religion. Tolerance is what we learn. It’s like a little United Nations in the ESOL classroom. And we all learn to cooperate with each other and respect each other. Nobody laughs at anybody else in the ESOL classroom.”
After her first day at Columbia Elementary School, Ji Eun Song already found herself feeling more comfortable in her new surroundings.
“Even though my skin color is somewhat different, most kids are nice to me, so I feel confident of myself in school.”
Once she gets accustomed to her new school and new classmates, Ji Eun Song should have no trouble finding her bearings in the Annandale community, a magnet for thousands of Korean families. There are at least 300 Korean-owned businesses in Annandale, including many restaurants, convenience stores, nail salons, and cleaning establishments. Buses full of South Korean tourists frequently stop at local malls and restaurants. The Washington metropolitan area boasts the fifth largest Korean population in the United States -- over 150,000 people, served by more than 300 Korean churches of various denominations and at least 50 Saturday schools teaching the Korean language, history and culture. It’s a place, in other words, where a young immigrant Korean girl can quickly feel right at home.