Program aims to teach foreign students English

April 20, 2010 4:47:09 PM PDT
HISD student Niyonsaba Magnifique, 14, is an eighth grader at Las Americas Middle School.

"From the time I was little, I liked to learn math," she said. "It wasn't hard for me. It was OK. And then I grow up liking math."

But Magnifique is no ordinary HISD student. And Las Americas is no ordinary school.

"It's a middle school designed specifically for recent immigrants," Las Americas Principal Marie Moreno said.

At Las Americas, the 136 students here come from 25 different countries and speak a separate 23 languages.

All of them are part of the district's refugee program.

"We have a lot of students that have never been in school," Moreno said. "We have students who are illiterate in their own language. And so trying to teach them a new language without having any foundation of their own language is also challenging."

Magnifique is Tanzanian, and though fluent in English now, when she came here three years ago, it wasn't easy.

"It was hard. Because I don't speak the language -- even when the teacher told me -- I didn't know what to say."

There are special language programs for students throughout the district. In fact, there are more than 60,000 who need language help in HISD. They come from more than 100 different countries and speak 80 different languages.

At Bruce Elementary in the Fifth Ward, 49 students speak four different languages, one of which nobody has been able to identify.

"Teaching, loving, accepting-that we can take care of," Bruce Elementary Principal Joe Gonzales said. "But the translating with parents has been hard.

But they manage at every level. Through dictionaries and translators, the children in the refugee program are learning.

In the case of Bellaire High School freshman Steven Zalaya, they are excelling.

"Since I am here, I am learning more and more English each day," Zalaya said.

He moved here a year ago from El Salvador and has befriended classmates from Switzerland, France, and Iraq.

"I want to go to college because I want to be somebody important in this country like a doctor, a lawyer, whatever," Zalaya said.

"There's a lot of pressure to get them up to speed. And yet, language acquisition doesn't happen overnight. You have to give it time," said Bellaire High School's Vicki Jones.

Ultimately, the students in HISD's Refugee Program must meet the same graduation requirements as regular students.

And while the funding comes from the federal government, keeping the kids on track isn't always an easy task.

But they work at it daily.

"Just seeing where they've been and how far they've come along makes me want to come to school every day," Moreno said.

And for students like Magnifique, it makes their integration and chances for success a little less overwhelming.


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