Crash course for teens

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Imagine a class where students come from 20 different countries and speak Farsi, Spanish, Estonian, Bengali, Assyrian, Sudanese, Somali and Albanian. A teacher greets them and begins instruction in English.

This scene is a daily reality for high school students enrolled in two CPS International Newcomer and Refugee Centers.

Newcomer centers were created to provide a soft landing to students who are at least 14 years old and have been living in the U.S. for less than a year. The first one was opened at Taft High School in 1999; a second opened at Senn High School a year later. This fall, each school has 40 students enrolled.

Students can attend the newcomer center for up to two years, where they focus on learning English, but also study academic subjects such as U.S. history, science and art. Classes are small—generally 15 students or less.

Joy Ross, who oversees both newcomer centers, says the educational level varies widely among the students. Many students have missed a year or more of formal education because of crises—from famine to war—in their homelands, or because of the long journey traveling to the U.S., she says.

“We’ve got students who are 16 and function at the 4th-grade level,” Ross adds.

After two years in the program, many students leave the centers to enroll in bilingual programs at other high schools, and some go to work. A number of them remain at Taft or Senn because of the network of friends and support they have developed, Ross says.

Unlike traditional bilingual education programs, which offer instruction in two languages, Ross says all instruction at the newcomer centers is in English.

Although most students speak Spanish, about 24 others speak 11 languages.

It’s impossible to find teachers who speak every language represented, says Ross, a native of the Bahamas. Still, she keeps a keen ear open for people who speak unusual languages or dialects that might be useful. Once she hired a Somalian who spoke Somali and Ethiopian to mediate a dispute between two boys who spoke either language, but could not talk to each other.

In class, teachers try a variety of tactics to communicate with their multilingual students. At Taft, Chuck Gutman asks his class—about a dozen Latinos and one student from Poland—to point out the capital of Illinois on a map. No one answers.

“Como sabes?,” he tries again in Spanish. A Spanish-speaking aid helps Gutman talk to the Latino students, but Gutman must rely on pictures and hand gestures to communicate with his Polish student.

The all-English format can be equally frustrating for students. Michelle Moreno, 18, arrived here in September from Ecuador and speaks little English. Every day is a struggle to communicate, she says.

English is still the toughest subject for Taft junior Tzviatko Chiderov, 17, who came from Bulgaria nearly two years ago. He has survived at the school with the help of a network of friends and teachers he met while he was in the newcomer center, he says.

Language is just one obstacle these new students face.

Students forced from their homes by wars in Bosnia, Sudan or Ethiopia still have lingering emotional trauma, says Madlena Puljas, a teacher at Senn’s newcomer center. Others may be attending school for the first time, she adds. “We have students who are emotionally depressed and come from very sad situations.”

Counselors are available for support, Puljas adds.

Field trips to museums, parks and cultural events help students, and sometimes their parents, get acclimated to U.S. culture. “We teach very basic things [such as] learning how to use CTA. What is the currency,” Puljas says.

Since they opened, about 125 students have attended classes at the newcomer centers. Demand for the program is high, but the class size is limited to 15 to ensure student receive individual attention, Ross says.

Both newcomer centers are located on the far north side of the city. Board officials say plans are underway to open a third center in another part of the city.