Ahu works in teacher Alysse Cullinan's class. Jay Paul photos
When Lisa Thompson sees kids in her trailer office outside Falling Creek Elementary School, they may be fresh off the plane — or newly installed in their second or third foster family. Confronted with reading, comprehension and math tests, the students are not always at their sharpest, but Thompson must decide within an hour or so which level of English as a Second Language they belong in.
In the case of immigrants, who make up most of Chesterfield County's ESL population, years of separation are the norm, as parents try to gain a financial foothold here before sending for their families. "The parents aren't always fully aware of their child's academic progress," notes Thompson, the county's ESL liaison. "Sometimes kids have performance anxiety, or they're jet-lagged."
For refugees like Aung and Ahu, Thompson may have even less information to work with. "We've had some students through Commonwealth Catholic Charities that are on their second or third family, and that sometimes requires changing the school system," Thompson says. Aung attended school in Henrico County before transferring to L.C. Bird High School last fall, after moving in with the Neffs.
So Thompson does the best she can with the information she has; the schedule can always be changed if a student is better versed in English than was evident in the ESL Welcome Center.
Chesterfield has three high schools with ESL programs: James River, Meadowbrook and Bird. James River has the most diverse population, with Arabic speakers, Chinese, Koreans and many other ethnicities. Meadowbrook, just over the Richmond-Chesterfield line, is the least diverse of the three, with mostly Spanish speakers. Bird, which started its ESL program this school year, had 37 Spanish speakers, four Indians, two Koreans, two Vietnamese, two Burmese, one Iranian, one German and one Chinese student as of April. Aung and Ahu are the only Burmese students currently in the school system.
The schools offer levels one through four; Ahu is in ESL I, Aung is in ESL II. Levels one through three take ESL English and reading classes, and as students progress, the school incorporates mainstream math, history and science classes into their schedules. As you might expect, level one is a catch-all, including students who can read and write simple sentences all the way down to those unfamiliar with the English alphabet. To deal with newcomers entering school late in the year, Chesterfield offers a three- to four-week class in basic phonics, bringing students up to speed before tossing them into the classroom.
At the upper levels, students learn to write essays and read textbooks, and even Ahu gave a PowerPoint presentation on koalas this year. After winter break, the focus shifts to preparing for Standards of Learning tests. ESL students are exempt for one year from taking reading and writing SOLs, but if, for example, a student is enrolled in Algebra I — as Aung is — the student must take the test. Ahu is not enrolled in any classes requiring an SOL test in May.
Bird ESL instructor Alysse Cullinan, who teaches Aung and Ahu, says testing is not a one-time process for most students: "They will retake and retake and retake until they pass."
ESL students do get a few allowances from the state, including use of a dictionary and headphones that allow them to listen to questions during the exams in case reading is too difficult — but still, Bird teacher Anna Cios notes, "It's a big stressor for us." It can take even the most advanced foreign students a few years to pass the reading and writing tests. Still, both teachers say that because ESL students get the same diploma as native-born students, they should be held to the same academic standards.
Cullinan, who sees students in levels one and two, taught ESL in two Chesterfield middle schools for seven years before coming to Bird this year; previously, she taught English in Chile, Taiwan and Portugal. At Providence and Robious middle schools, her students were from all over the world. Cios, who teaches levels one, three and four, taught for a decade in Denver, where her students were 99 percent Mexican, so she finds the relative diversity at Bird refreshing. The small world of ESL promotes a genuine bond between teacher and student, bolstered in the case of Aung and Ahu by the teachers' relationship with Janey Neff, who finds she can discover a little more of what's going on with the boys through Cios and Cullinan.
Ahu's progress in reading and writing has taken off this year, although the 15-year-old seems unaware of it, Cullinan says. "Ahu is a little frustrated that he's not learning fast enough," she notes, perhaps comparing himself to Aung, who's been in the country a year longer and is further along in his studies. Both boys also feel a bit isolated, despite the fact that they are generally popular with classmates and teachers.
"Everybody just loves Ahu," Cullinan says.
"He gives you a hug before spring break," adds Cios.
But the language barrier is difficult to overcome, and Cullinan notes that "he feels like he doesn't have any friends." Still, he seems to be getting closer to his classmates, some of whom catch a ride home in Neff's minivan after school and soccer games.
Aung continues to sit alone in the cafeteria on the days when he has a different lunch period than Ahu, though. He attributes this to the other kids from class speaking Spanish at lunch, but Cullinan has a different theory: "I think some of his distance from his classmates is more due to culture and maturity than language. A good amount of that is being a teenager." Both boys put a lot of pressure on themselves, both their teachers and the Neffs say.
It's easy to forget that behind the fresh faces and the teenage uniform of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers lie refugee lives and experiences most adults can't even imagine.