To glimpse inside Julie Perron’s University High School classroom is to gaze around the world.
In one desk sits Hiroki Hata from Japan. Across from him are Olia Vasilyev from Kyrgyzstan, Pavel Vlasenko from Russia, and Thanh-Thuy Truong from Vietnam. Ambartsam Oganov from Armenia, all sideburns and sense of humor, sits in the room’s center and somehow manages to entertain them all.
For all the obvious differences here, this hodgepodge of cultures that assembles every morning at University High has something important in common.
When these students arrived in America, they could speak little or no English.
“It’s really an incredible experience to see a Russian trying to communicate in English with somebody who speaks almost solely Vietnamese,” says Perron, the Central Valley School District’s English Language Development (ELD) teacher. “It takes a lot of organizational strategy.”
These high school-age immigrants - they aren’t exchange students - meet with Perron every morning at U-Hi. The energetic 29-year-old also teaches ELD classes at North Pines Junior High and oversees the school district program in the grade schools.
In all, there are 61 non-native English speakers in the Central Valley district. There also are 50 such students enrolled in a similar program in the West Valley School District, and 31 in East Valley schools.
CV’s Perron has three assistants: Dolores Hernandez at U-Hi, Lollie Apodaca at North Pines, and Joyce Stott at the grade schools.
Together, they don’t simply teach English - they also help kids with their mainstream academic courses. Perron’s kids take math, biology, and history right alongside their American-born classmates.
“Our thinking is social adjustment occurs best when we mainstream them because all students and staff become involved in the school community,” Perron says.
Olia Vasilyev’s native Kyrgyzstan is in Asia. She has blond hair and blue eyes. Like a lot of her classmates, Olia can’t wait to be done with her senior year.
“I’m so glad, because I finished 12 years of school in Russia, and then I had to do school again here,” says Vasilyev, 19. Not only did she arrive without paperwork on her education at home, but her English was so limited that high school was a must.
“Now, I will go to college,” she says. “So it’s good that I came to school.”
These kids - along with their parents - are in Spokane for a variety of reasons. Some families came seeking religious or political freedom. Some came for economic opportunity or even adventure. Each has his or her own unique recollection of his first day in American school.
Hata, a junior at CV, recalls carrying a dictionary with him everywhere. Olia was exhausted at the outset, having to concentrate all day long just to understand.
When Oganov admits that even he was a little scared, the class bursts out laughing. They can’t imagine the boisterous Armenian, who wrestled for the U-Hi junior varsity team this year, being scared of anything.
“I understood English when I came, but I didn’t know the right way to say it,” Oganov says, his voice lively and clear. “It was hard for me to speak with my classmates.”
Another laugh comes from the class, prompting Perron to explain, “And you can imagine just how difficult it was for Ambartsam not to speak.”
Dolores Hernandez is in her fifth year of working with English programs in the CV district. When she was hired as a teacher’s aide, she thought she was signing on to do just that - help a teacher.
“I ended up being the teacher,” Hernandez said. Before Perron’s position was created, Hernandez and the other assistants led the EDL program in the classroom.
Hernandez speaks Spanish, but only rarely in class. She says she finds the students learn English more quickly if teachers don’t speak to them in their native tongues.
Hernandez attends mainstream classes with all the kids, and helps explain what the teacher is saying at the front of the room - with pictures, hand gestures, whatever works.
Five years ago, there were just 18 non-native English speakers in the CV district. Their numbers have increased by an average of 10 students every year. In 1995, the district realized it needed help.
With the addition of Perron, the district now can better pinpoint the diverse needs of this growing number of kids, says Marcia Taes, who coordinates the CV’s special programs.
“We are able to look where the student is at, whether they need support in English language or whether they need support in reading, writing, and thinking skills,” Taes says.
Has the program been effective?
Test scores aren’t available, but Taes says all seven seniors enrolled in 1996 graduated with the same requirements as mainstream students.
When immigrant students arrive in the fall, they are at all different academic levels. Some have been to school in other states. For others, Spokane is one of their first American ports of call.
For these kids, says U-Hi history teacher Ken VanSickle, the first months in class can be frustrating and lonely. For instance, students in one of VanSickle’s classes watch the news every day at the beginning of class, then take a quiz based on what they’ve seen. With the ever-changing scenes and soundbites that flash by at dizzying 21st-century speed, the foreign kids often struggle to follow the action.
“But by the end of of the year, they’re really comfortable with following the news and taking the news quizzes,” Van Sickle says. “You can see them begin to come out of their shells and interact with the other students.”
Kathy Steblaj, a counselor at U-Hi, remembers one of her first experiences with a foreign student some years ago. He was from Cambodia.
He couldn’t speak English, but his brother had come with him to the office to help him register for classes.
“His brother had tears streaming from his eyes when he told me both their parents had been shot while escaping across the Mekong River,” she says. “And here he was, enrolling at University High School. It just causes you to realize what a burden these kids have, not only the language, but the circumstances that brought them here.”
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