Schools get head start in English immersion
The Boston Globe
By Katheleen Conti, Globe Staff
 2-year-old program geared toward recent immigrants

Many come with impressive high school transcripts from their native countries showing high grades in courses like biology, botany, and other natural and physical sciences. But now that bilingual education is not allowed in Massachusetts public schools, many recent young immigrants are forced to extend their high school education while they learn English and pass the MCAS test.

When voters approved the state's English immersion initiative over a year ago, however, Lawrence public school officials were prepared -- at least for students who were getting their first taste of American high schools.
For about two years, Lawrence has been implementing a program for ninth- through twelfth-graders who require intensive English immersion. The program is offered at both Lawrence High School and the Storrow School, which houses several alternative programs.
Known as the New Comers Program, it focuses on advancing students through the regular high school and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment test requirements, with the additional load of three English classes a day, said Storrow School principal Paul L. Koppenhaver.
Lawrence schools are about 84 percent Latino, according to state Department of Education statistics for the last school year. Of those students, about 27 percent were classified as having limited English proficiency, compared with 5 percent of students statewide.
The newcomers are exempt from taking the MCAS test their first year in the state, but after that, they must pass the test in order to graduate, no matter how impressive the transcripts from their native country are.
"The children that I'm seeing are between 15 and 20 years old," Koppenhaver said. "They're put here and start hearing about MCAS and . . . it's a hurdle. The reality is that they end up staying extra years if they want that Massachusetts high school diploma."
This school year in particular, the district has received a plethora of newcomers, more so than any other year, Koppenhaver said.
"We just never had so many kids. Even for us, this is a very odd year," he said.
Approximately 125 students are in the New Comers Program this year, and many of the recent arrivals are from Haiti or of Haitian origin, Koppenhaver said.
"For us, it's interesting, this flux of Haitian adolescents recently," Koppenhaver said. "There is an active Haitian community in Lawrence already, so there's a small enclave for them to connect with."
Argentina Cruz, director of the Lawrence Learning Center, a private agency offering educational programs, said many of the students' families who come directly from Haiti are fleeing that country because of the political difficulties there. Other Haitian students, she said, are arriving from Springfield, New York, and Miami.
"The main reason is that there is a better way of life here and more job opportunities," Cruz said. "We're also getting some students from Colombia and Ecuador because families fear guerrillas and drugs. The majority of the newcomers already have family here, others find [Lawrence] by doing Internet research."
Last month, the Lawrence Learning Center teamed up with the school district to offer two extra hours of English immersion for newcomers after school. The center program is separate from the program offered by the school system but complements it. The center was already offering English courses to adults, before the idea to reach out to the high school students was born, Cruz said.
A majority of the students in the New Comers Program, 86 of them, are enrolled in the four-day-a-week after-school program, which is open to students starting at the seventh grade.
The New Comers program teaches students to speak and write English as they attend their classes. Once the newcomers learn enough English, they are transferred to regular classes at the high school, Koppenhaver said. At this point most are able to speak the language better than they can write it.
But being able to speak English does not fully satisfy students, who still have the MCAS requirement hanging over their heads.
"It's more frustrating for the students when you have that hurdle of that test in front of you. As the student becomes better versed at English, they could still not be able to write well," Koppenhaver said. "Linguists say you can learn to speak a new language in three years, but you're not going to process it well until seven years."
At the Learning Center, Cruz tries to make the MCAS secondary to learning English, because of the pressures the newcomers place on themselves, including feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in with the rest of the students.
"The kids are happy because they're getting a grasp on the United States culture, but they also get depressed because of the age they are at, Cruz said. She said that, being teenagers, the students are more sensitive to peer pressure.
"Many of them get frustrated," she said. "They feel they don't fit in with the rest of their peers and because they have to work harder. Sometimes they also don't have support at home because a family member works the entire day, while others live with family members that don't pay enough attention to them."
Community activist Isabel Melendez, who for many years has helped recent immigrants find jobs and housing in the city, said adolescents who come to the United States from other countries want to learn English immediately because they want to go to school and to be able to talk to people and get jobs.
"The desire to learn English is very great," Melendez said. "I'm always in favor of young kids having opportunities to learn English. I have seen them in my office, with the desire to immerse themselves in English."
The pressures of fitting in have led to an increased desire among newcomers to speed up their learning process, even leading them to engage in friendly competition to see who can make it into a regular classroom first, Cruz said. Five students who enrolled in the after-school program last month advanced so quickly, they have already been placed in regular classes at the high school, Cruz said.
"They focus on the goal. There's definitely competition; if one makes it to the high school, another one wants to follow," she said.
Koppenhaver said the New Comers Program is working and should be a model in the state.
"It's a bridge for a student that has minimal to no [English] language skills. That's what makes it so special," Koppenhaver said. "For most kids, they can be in less intensive settings after a year."
Katheleen Conti can be reached at