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Schools help to bridge language gap

By Trina Trice

When Mariela Levy moved to Clayton County from Uruguay seven years ago, she was confident that her three sons could adjust to the new language and culture.

"They didn't have any problems," she said. "They are speaking and reading perfect."

But some students aren't quite as lucky.

The English as a Second Language and Community Liaison programs through the Clayton County Public School System assist students and their families with the adjustment.

The ESOL program consists of 39 teachers who serve different schools in the county, said Dee Ann Dozier, lead ESOL teacher.

"We are an immersion program," she said. "We have special classes; we work with a small number of students. We try to help them learn English as quickly as possible."

About 60 language groups are represented in the county's schools.

"Each year we may have a group of students from one area that we hadn't had before," Dozier said.

In addition to helping the students learn a new language, ESOL teachers make sure students are getting the academic help they need.

"It takes four to seven years for a student to acquire enough English for a student to do well without assistance," she said. "Research has shown that students who have learned their first language and were academically achieving in their first language do better. They may have an accent."

That fact dispels the belief many have that the younger a child is, the quicker they'll learn a new language, Dozier says.

"They are going to learn social learning faster, and may lose some of their accent. We may not have as much success when (the students) are still trying to learn their ABCs," she said.

Levy's sons took ESOL classes and were successful.

"I think the school did well," she said. "They never had any problem. They never felt the need to feel separated."

Brothers Jorge and Jomil Caraballo, originally from Puerto Rico, have been in the country for only a year, and are currently taking ESOL classes.

"We've been learning a new language," Jorge said. "We've been learning a new life. The benefits in the United States are better. We feel pretty good right now."

Both brothers admit, though, that most of their English lessons take place outside of the classroom.

"I don't learn English in the school," Caraballo said. "I learn on the job and with my friends."

In situations when a child is challenged academically or when other obstacles arise, an ESOL teacher could refer the student to a Community Liaison.

The school system employs five Community Liaisons n two are Spanish-speaking; one is from Vietnam; one is from Laos; and one is from Cambodia, able to speak Khmer, the native language of that country.

Referrals for the liaisons come from a variety of sources, says Patty Castro, Other Language lead teacher.

"They primarily assist newcomers," she said. "They assist the student in learning the American school culture. They may also do some tutoring. Another large component is that they work with the schools and the families to provide interpreting services during parent-teacher conferences."

Loc Cao, from Vietnam, is a Community Liaison.

"I try to help the parents understand the school system here," he said. "I help translate documents for them. Sometimes I do home visits, sometimes we help fill out forms for (the Department of Family and Children Services)."

Community Liaisons are allowed to help translate test materials for students when they are taking standardized tests, Castro said.

However, school officials could not comment on whether academically-challenged ESOL students affect Clayton County's dropping test scores.

Luz Diaz is originally from New York, but learned Spanish when her family moved to Puerto Rico in her early teens.

She has two sons and is raising two nephews all of whom are students in Clayton County.

As a Community Liaison, Diaz has noticed the impact that coming to a strange country can have on a child.

"Some feel frustrated, some show fear," she said. "The language is a concern, the country, many things. When they approach someone who is willing to help, they tend to relax and feel more accepted. Once they feel they can reach out for help, they slowly feel they can be successful."

Building a relationship with the parents is also important, Diaz says: "When I make the first contact with the parent, you create a bond, a trust. They continue calling you and they keep in contact. They also help us inform the community about what the system is providing in order to help them."

As a parent and as a liaison, Diaz remembers when to help and went to step away from a student so that he or she can find their own way.

"When we came to this country (and her boys got the assistance they needed), after that it was time to let go so that they wouldn't become dependent," she said. "That's what I do with the other children."

Diaz and Levy encourage their children to participate in sports.

Levy's oldest son Rodrigo Ferriera plays football, and Diaz's sons run for the cross-country team.

"Playing sports is more than likely to help them become better citizens," she said.

She also values her sons' friendships with other kinds of people.

"I always encourage diversity," Diaz said. "We have different friends from different cultures. We have to learn from each other and respect each other to live."