Original URL: http://www.usatoday.com/usatonline/20030825/5438350s.htm

Motivation, focus send foreign-born students soaring

USA Today, 8/25/03

By Patrick Welsh

There were days this summer when I heard hardly a word of English as I walked by clusters of chattering students in the lobby of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. Some kids were speaking in Spanish, others in Amharic, Bengali or Farsi.

A white parent walking through the crowd one morning declared the scene ''scary.'' Little did she know that these kids were among the most motivated, focused and respectful students in the school.

More than 200 of these students showed up voluntarily at 7:15 every morning for five weeks to take the English as a second language (ESL) courses offered during summer school. ESL classes may be the least-recognized courses at T.C. Williams, down there with the career wing's cosmetology course.

Those with the real power in the community -- affluent white parents and advocates for African-American kids -- view ESL as a nuisance that drains funds from their agendas. Alexandria officials have been stunned by the growth of the foreign-born population in schools: from roughly 6% in 1983 to the current figure of more than 30%. Many still haven't come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, these kids are going to be part of the community fabric.

The fact is that every investment made in these kids pays dividends. They infuse the school with a love of learning and a work ethic pitifully lacking in so many American-born students. They have neither the sense of entitlement that so many lazy middle-class kids have nor the anti-achievement ethic that infects so many low-income students. No one who teaches our immigrant students is surprised that once they learn English, they often leave their American peers in the academic dust.

Alexandria's ''problem'' with immigrant students is a nationwide phenomenon. From 1991 to 2002, the number of students nationwide getting ESL services in kindergarten through 12th grade rose 95% (to 4.75 million) while total public school enrollment increased by only 12%. In Nebraska, Georgia and North Carolina, ESL class enrollment increased more than sixfold; it tripled in Nevada, Minnesota and Oregon, among other states. In Virginia, ESL class enrollment has risen 75% since 1997.

In many ways, ESL could be said to be the single most important program at T.C. Williams and thousands of other schools across the country. I can think of no other course that has such a dramatic, life-changing affect on kids. Without it, they are doomed to unproductive, invisible lives, marginalized in the lowest paying jobs where there is minimal contact with English speakers.

When Salih Akarsar came to Alexandria from Turkey, he didn't feel ''like a regular person,'' he says. ''I was uncomfortable all the time. . . . I felt like a stranger everywhere I went. I couldn't even ask questions to find out what I had to know. The more I learned English in ESL the more I felt like an American.'' Salih now has a part-time job at a retirement home and is helping his parents learn English.

''When I couldn't express myself, I felt pulled apart inside, like I was another person. Everyone around me was having good conversation and I had to sit there and be quiet,'' says Marcio Villanueva, who emigrated from Bolivia two years ago and will move into mainstream courses when school starts next week. ''I want to be with Americans where I am speaking English all the time.''

Like many immigrant kids, Marcio has ended up being the translator and intermediary for his mother, who does not speak much English. ''I read her the mail, take her to the doctor. . . . It makes me feel good to know that she trusts me so much.''

Daniel Domenech, the dynamic superintendent of the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, the 12th largest school system in the country, remembers well the isolation that Marcio and Salih felt.

In 1955, he emigrated from Cuba not knowing a word of English. ''I was in fifth grade in Cuba, but they stuck me back in second grade in New York,'' he says. ''There was no ESL. . . . Teachers thought I was retarded because I couldn't speak English. I sat in the back of the room and looked out the window all day. It wasn't until the last years of high school that I hit my stride and could match native-born Americans in terms of grades and achievement.''

Domenech is not only an advocate for ESL but for bilingual education: ''Conservatives think that bilingual education is un-American. . . . There's a 'when in Rome do as the Romans do' mentality that overlooks the fact that kids could be learning much more content -- science, math and history -- if they were taught in their native language while they learned English.''

As it is now, students are being prevented from learning as much as they could.

Arguments about the relative merits of ESL and bilingual education aside, there is an enormous upside to the influx of immigrant kids: Most bring with them a passion for learning and an academic commitment that are sorely needed in public schools today. That fact was reinforced for me during those five weeks of summer school. It's the reason ESL teachers seem to complain less about their students than any other group of teachers I know.

''I could never go back to teaching regular English classes after teaching ESL. The kids are eager; they are grateful for what you do for them,'' says Marge Diamond, who has taught English and ESL for more than 30 years.

In one way, I have to agree with the white parent who saw the foreign-born kids in the lobby a few weeks ago as ''scary.'' But what's scary is not their growing presence, but how their hunger for learning and their willingness to sacrifice and study hard make many American-born kids appear lazy, spoiled and mindless in comparison. This generation of young immigrants, these new Americans, prove that schools can accomplish great things when students value learning and are willing to work.


Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. and member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.