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Getting used to English

Language center delivers the skills to students for whom English is brand new

Posted: Monday, December 26, 2005

ANCHORAGE - It's the Ellis Island of the Anchorage School District, a cluster of classrooms where teenagers new to the country learn to be Americans.

This means mastering tasks as simple as reading a map, finding a bus stop or opening a locker.

And it all starts with learning English.

Since 1996, the Newcomers' Center has helped students who are brand new to the United States. Most have come straight from other countries to Alaska. Some have no formal schooling. Others come from cultures without a written language.

Imagine: Suddenly thrust into a high school with snaking hallways, nearly 2,000 classmates, up to seven different teachers a day and a slew of academic subjects, with all the instructions and lessons sounding like garbled babbling.

"I came when I was in the second semester of my seventh-grade year," said Natalia Mejia, 16, from the Dominican Republic. "I barely knew how to say my name. I felt like I didn't know anything. When you first come to a foreign country, it's hard to fit in. And when you move, that's all you want to do is fit in."

At the Newcomers' Center, Natalia felt safe. She could practice English and make mistakes without worrying people would laugh at her, she said.

The center opened as the district's enrollment of immigrant children increased. At that time, in 1996, 32 percent of students were minorities. It has grown since - it is 45 percent today - and is expected to keep growing by about 1 percent each year for the next decade at least.

"And what we're seeing is a larger and larger percent of that ethnic minority are immigrants or recent immigrants who are coming to Alaska from other parts of the country," said Roger Fiedler, a district spokesman.

Elementary schools use tutors or bilingual teachers to help children learn English. At that age, teachers say, kids have brains like sponges, soaking up vocabulary from chatty classmates. And particularly in the youngest grades, they aren't expected to know a whole lot more than numbers, the alphabet and basic manners.

It's different at the middle and high school level. Students are expected to change classes several times a day, work with all sorts of teachers and classmates, and have the background knowledge to navigate meatier academics.

So the increasing number of non-English speakers has made the Newcomers' Center critical, said Imtiaz Azzam, the teacher in charge of the program.

When Azzam joined in 2000, there were 15 students at the center. Today there are almost 80, with more on a waiting list.

They spend about half their school day at the center, housed at the King Career Center. They take math, science and an elective class at their regular school. At the Newcomers' Center, it's reading, writing and social studies.

The current batch of students speak Hmong, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Samoan, Russian, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Indonesian and Krio, an African language. The newest student is a girl from Bangladesh who speaks Bengali.

Only four of the students in the afternoon session arrived with some English. The rest spoke none at all.

Azzam relates to these students - their frustrations, their shyness, their struggles. She moved to Alaska from Israel in 1987 and, while fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, she didn't speak a word of English.

Learning it was tough, she said. The English language was unlike any she'd studied. But Azzam did it and went on to get master's degrees in counseling and teaching from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

After substitute teaching for a while, she found the Newcomers' Center job. It was a perfect fit, Azzam said.

"I love it. That's the reason I'm here every day," she said. "I feel like I can live in their shoes. And I say to the students, if I can make it, you can make it."

Karin Henriquez said things looked pretty bleak when she moved to Anchorage from El Salvador. Her dad brought her here so they could be with family.

She was starting eighth grade at Clark Middle School. She didn't speak a word of English. She didn't have any friends, and she felt too timid to try to make any.

"I didn't want to be here," Henriquez said. "I didn't want to go out from home."

At Clark, complicated math and science lessons went right over Henriquez's head. After the routine screening to test her language skills, district staff sent her to the Newcomers' Center.

The teachers were patient and took time to work with her, she said.

"I was more comfortable here," Henriquez said. "I could speak English without people laughing at me because of my accent and everything."

Henriquez still has an accent. And sometimes she makes tiny goofs - a verb tense slip, for instance. But she speaks English in rapid-fire chatter typical of any teenage girl.

She plans to go to UAA. She said she can't imagine what life would be like had she not gone to the Newcomers' Center.

"I know it would have been horrible," Henriquez said.

Ilia Borisenko moved to Anchorage from Russia after his mother remarried. He was 12.

"I knew basic English phrases, but it didn't help me out much," said Borisenko, now 17. "It was pretty hard to keep up my grades and very hard to communicate in class."

That changed once he got rolling at Newcomers. Patient teachers and intense instruction helped him bust out of his shy shell and pushed him, he said, to "do my best."

Before that, Borisenko said, "I was just afraid of saying something embarrassing. If I hadn't come to the Newcomers' Center, my English would probably be at a very low level right now."

Azzam will travel to Florida this spring to give a presentation about the center at a conference on bilingual education.

She said she sometimes has to let students leave the program before she'd like to, in order to make room for new kids. Often, Azzam said, students tell her they don't want to leave.

She's studying for her administrative certificate, which is what the district requires of principals. Her dream, she said, is to expand Newcomers' so that students can spend the whole school day there, studying math and science through the program too.

That sounds great to Mejia, who said her middle school experience would have been easier if she had started off taking all of her classes at the center. She had classes at Clark and, later, at East High, where teachers were too busy to help her understand the material and instructions.

"If kids don't have help, they won't learn English," she said. "Because students are going to keep speaking their language because that's how they're comfortable."



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