Immigrant student faces language, social hurdles

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Jafet Melendez

Jafet Melendez

On the surface, Jafet Melendez looks pretty much like any other 8th-grader at Pulaski Elementary in Bucktown. He wears an Old Navy hoodie and high-top sneakers nearly every day. He likes video games, McDonalds, and the Latin-flavored rap music called reggaetón. He has a cell phone—and a pierced tongue, thanks to his stepfather, Sergio, a factory worker and part-time tattoo artist. The desk near his bed at the family home is covered with items most teenage boys collect—action figures, tough-guy sunglasses and CDs.

Despite the outer trappings of a typical American teen, in reality, Jafet is still closely tied to the place he called home until 18 months ago: a neighborhood just outside Mexico City. He still tracks websites showing the latest news and events back there, exchanges e-mails with his uncle and tells his new friends the latest Spanish slang he’s learned from calling friends back in Mexico. The class picture from his 6th-grade graduation is tacked up on the wall near his bed. And while he usually chooses to speak English with a visitor, he continues to speak Spanish to his Spanish-speaking classmates and parents, who speak little English.

Jafet’s experiences over the past 18 months illustrate some the challenges facing the 57,700 students in Chicago Public Schools whose native language is not English. The percentage of English-language learners in CPS has held steady for the past decade at about 14 percent. At Pulaski, however, it’s 25 percent.

Jafet faces the additional challenge of learning English as an older student. And the pressure on schools like Pulaski is greater than ever. After many years of being judged mostly by one measure—how quickly students learned English and transitioned into mainstream classrooms—districts and schools are now also being held accountable for raising the achievement of bilingual students in core subjects, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Now English-language learners in CPS and elsewhere in Illinois, will take a simplified version of the test used to measure academic progress under NCLB: the IMAGE (Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English), a modified version of the ISAT.

The new IMAGE includes fewer questions and a lower minimum passing score. (Students will also face a new assessment of English skills, called ACCESS.)

Many advocates for bilingual and immigrant students support NCLB’s emphasis on the needs of these students. But some are critical of the standardized tests used to measure achievement, and say that NCLB’s criteria for determining whether schools are making progress with bilingual students is difficult to meet.

“It’s a treadmill,” says James Crawford, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C. “Each year the high-scoring kids leave the (English-language learners) subgroup and new kids with low scores arrive.”

September 2004: More than 100 languages

When Jafet started at Pulaski, the only English he knew was hello, goodbye, and how to count to 10—just about the same amount of Spanish most native English speakers can speak.

He and two other boys, Jonathan and Julio, started 7th grade at about the same time and quickly formed a tight bond, clustering together everywhere they went—at lunch, on the playground, in the regular classroom, and in their ESL (English as a Second Language) class. Bilingual coordinator Fabiola Ginski, who teaches the ESL class, affectionately nicknamed them “The Three Musketeers.” She describes Jafet as “the most traditional of the boys” because of his well-mannered and respectful attitude toward adults.

During Jafet’s first six months at Pulaski, he spent about two and a half hours per day in the ESL class—a common schedule for a student with the most limited English skills—and is one of about 10 7th- and 8th-graders who rotate into the room. Here, Ginski teaches English as well as some academic content in core subjects.

This approach, rather than a full-fledged bilingual program in which students would be taught core subjects in their native language while also learning English, is standard practice in schools with small numbers of children at varying grade levels who speak different languages. At Pulaski, in what was once a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood, students now also speak Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Haitian Creole. In all, more than 100 languages are now spoken by students in Chicago, according to CPS.

Jafet’s first few months in Ginski’s class weren’t easy. He was disruptive and seemed unfocused at times, behavior Ginski attributed to immaturity and the difficult process of “settling in” to a new school, a new country and family life with a new stepfather.

In previous years, CPS could have provided Jafet with extra help making the adjustment. The district used to receive about $1 million a year in federal funding targeted toward support services for immigrant students, such as home visits and other outreach efforts.

At Pulaski, a counselor and social worker help monitor newly arrived students.

The district still provides some services to immigrant children. And CPS has also applied for a federal grant to fund two “welcoming centers,” operated in conjunction with other agencies to serve new immigrant students across the city, according to Rosa Vazquez, administrator in CPS’ Office of Language and Cultural Education.

Ginski, who spends lots of time talking with Jafet about his schoolwork and how things are going at home, eventually called Jafet’s mother and stepfather in to discuss his behavior. By winter, Jafet’s conduct had improved.

February 2005: Bouts of being homesick

Jafet is one of a small group—about 30 percent—of English-language learners who are older than primary-grade age when they enter CPS. “The vast majority come [in] kindergarten,” says Fernando Martinez, deputy head of the Office of Language and Cultural Education.

Helping older students learn a second language is considered more challenging. For one, younger children usually pick up a second language more easily. And adolescents must get up to speed in English while also keeping up in core academic subjects.

Learning English can easily make adolescent children feel isolated and stigmatized, according to Crawford of the bilingual education group. “It’s terrible for the kids,” he says. “They feel isolated and stupid and treated like they are the problem. They get the idea that something is wrong with them.”

Ginski’s approach is relentless, but not so demanding that children can’t keep up. When students ask questions in their native language, Ginski almost always responds in English. She insists on reasonably correct pronunciation. If Jafet and his friends use Spanish to explain something to each other or mutter the correct answer to a question, Ginski chides them firmly. “You’re not helping him that way,” she says.

However, no one in the class is pushed too far, even when they experience “brain freeze” and momentarily can’t generate a single word in English. And Ginski offers lots of gimmicks to make the lessons enjoyable—basketball contests using nerf balls, skits, and “Ginski Dollars” good for treats after class. “I make it all into a game,” she says.

For the most part, Jafet appears to be adjusting socially, but he’s still something of an outsider. He and his two friends are sometimes referred to as “the Mexican boys” by their schoolmates—even though many of them are also Mexican-American and one of the trio, Julio, is actually from Guatemala.

Jafet also still experiences bouts of being homesick. He hasn’t seen his childhood friends for well over a year, and doesn’t know when he will be able to; unlike some immigrants from Mexico, his family does not travel back to their native country during the summer or the holidays.

Jafet’s face still tenses up when asked why his family left Mexico. “There was no work there,” he says. “It was my mother’s dream.”

May 2005: Too easy or too hard?

By last spring, Jafet was spending more time in teacher Jessica D’Andrea’s regular 7th-grade classroom, especially during math and science lessons. There is a small but noticeable drop in his confidence level, and his demeanor becomes quieter when he leaves Ginski’s ESL class.

This “pullout” strategy is “widely recognized as the least effective way to teach English,” says Crawford. “When the kids are in the mainstream classroom, most of the instruction is not comprehensible to them,” he says. “So they can’t learn. It’s wasted time, and it may have bad psychosocial effects on the kids.”

In D’Andrea’s class, Jafet sits with his two friends in the back of the room. D’Andrea, who does not speak Spanish, calls on them during class and makes sure to come over to their desks to check on them.

But it’s clear the boys sometimes have problems understanding the English-language materials and D’Andrea’s instructions. They also often have trouble explaining their answers in English. (Jafet and his friends do get some help from other Spanish-speaking students whose English skills are more advanced.)

Ideally, to ease the transition as they learn English and help them keep up with more demanding academic content, D’Andrea would have supplemental materials in a student’s native language and a bilingual aide or second ESL teacher to help in the classroom, according to CPS and state guidelines.

While Ginski says Pulaski has begun spending more discretionary funds on bilingual materials, the school does not have the money for an aide or second teacher.

Even so, Spanish-language materials for older students are not readily available, and materials in other languages are even more scarce. There is a Spanish workbook to go along with the math textbook, for instance, but nothing in Spanish for science. In the past, Ginski says she has sometimes translated textbooks herself for the older students.

Without the materials or skills in Spanish, D’Andrea finds it difficult to adjust the work level for her English-language learners. The issue of challenging content is a concern of some parents.

Last year, says Ginski, some parents complained that their children were being graded too hard by one teacher. Others, like Jafet’s mom, are concerned that the work is too easy.

“In Mexico, they gave him ‘investigaciones’—longer papers and in-depth projects,” Jafet’s mother, Orly, says in Spanish. “Here I haven’t seen anything like that.”

Some immigrant students—especially those from rural areas—had less formal education in their native country and may have limited skills in reading, writing or math. For students like Jafet, who comes from an urban area, the opposite may be true. In fact, Jafet says his schoolwork here is sometimes easier than it was back in Mexico. He also manages to get most of his homework done at school.

Despite the hurdles so far, Jafet says he likes it at Pulaski. He has friends, likes his teachers, is doing fairly well in school and even flirts shyly with some of the girls in his ESL classroom. His only complaint: Getting to school on the city bus is a little harder than on a CPS bus, which he rode last year.

November 2005: Getting ready for high school

When the new school year starts, Jafet begins spending only 90 minutes a day in the ESL classroom; based on tests and the progress students make in English, the school adjusts the amount of time English-language learners spend in the ESL class.

Jafet is now learning all his core subjects in D’Andrea’s class.(This year, she moved up a grade with her former 7th-graders, a strategy the school uses to help students and teachers forge stronger relationships.)

Jafet’s English is noticeably better, although he occasionally switches back and forth between English and Spanish in the same sentence. His vocabulary is larger, his confidence has grown, he’s long-since eclipsed his parents in English fluency, and he can usually follow the storylines on his favorite TV shows. Asked in Spanish whether his phone number is the same as last year, Jafet rattles off, in English, his and his parents’ new phone numbers—something he likely wouldn’t have attempted, or succeeded at, last year.

There’s more ground for him to improve, of course. Reading out loud, he focuses on pronunciation and leaves few pauses for commas and periods that would help get across the meaning of sentences. His written work includes slight misspellings and leaves out correct punctuation. “I goin to tell yo about when I was los in the desert with my cousin,” he writes in a first draft of a recent assignment. “Was 2 years ago.” Ginski makes sure to have him correct all of his mistakes, and says that overall, he’s “really doing well. Now, when you ask him for a sentence in English, he answers in English.”

While Jafet is making progress in English, D’Andrea discovers that he and other students aren’t ready to read English-language novels (math word problems in English are also difficult for them to understand). So she grouped those students together to read books in Spanish, and discuss them and do assignments in English.

During one lesson, Jafet leads a discussion on the book “Esperanza Rising.”

“Ees about a girl and her family,” explains Jafet. “Her dad dies.” (The mispronounced vowel ‘i’ is common in Spanish-speakers, who pronounce “i” like a long “e” as in sheep.) D’Andrea then explains the assignment, which involves asking questions and writing down classmates’ answers. On another worksheet, Jafet writes down words he doesn’t understand and then the definitions.

As his English improves, Jafet is becoming more confident participating in D’Andrea’s class. He recently stood up in front of his classmates and delivered a poem he wrote in Spanish as part of the class “poetry slam.”

Depending on where he attends high school, he may or may not receive more instruction in English: Just 32 of the city’s high schools have ESL programs.

For next year, Jafet’s parents are thinking about sending him to Prosser High School, which is closer to home and has a well-developed bilingual program. Another possibility is Mirta Ramirez Charter School, which Ginski has recommended, in part for its computer science emphasis.

Despite the language and cultural challenges he faces, Jafet’s teachers are confident he will continue succeeding in school. Unlike some adolescents, he hasn’t gotten into trouble or disengaged from school. And while most 13-year-olds might look down and mumble when talking to adults, Jafet looks them in the eye and greets them with a firm handshake.

“I’m not worried about him,” says Ginski. “He’s smart, he’s making progress and he has his friends, Julio and Jonathan, to help him along.”

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.