Older Students Who Need Basics Pose Challenge

Jose Velasquez, 18, gets help from teacher Margaret VanBuskirk at Gaithersburg High. Velasquez moved here from Nicaragua with little formal education.
Jose Velasquez, 18, gets help from teacher Margaret VanBuskirk at Gaithersburg High. Velasquez moved here from Nicaragua with little formal education. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

When Jose Velasquez, a soft-spoken teenager from Nicaragua whose basketball jersey and baggy jeans drape his lean frame, enrolled in a Montgomery County high school, his teachers soon discovered that he was far from ready for the classroom.

Although he was 17, he couldn't do division, write a paragraph or read a simple sentence in English.

Although many immigrant students excel in school, a few, such as Velasquez, have so little education in their native language that they pose a special challenge when they enter local schools. They lack the basic skills necessary to benefit from traditional programs -- known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) -- that are designed to acclimate immigrants to the U.S. educational system.

At a time when No Child Left Behind requires that educators ensure that all students are literate, the plight of this group illustrates the hurdles faced by even wealthy school systems such as those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties as they attempt to meet the law's mandates. Somehow, educators must help students with little formal schooling read, write and do math at the same level as the kids who arrive at school as kindergartners fluent in English.

"The challenge with high-schoolers is the lack of time," said Keith Buchanan, coordinator of the ESOL office for Fairfax County Public Schools. "The clock is ticking the minute they walk into that school."

The process of teaching this group can be difficult and frustrating for students and teachers, experts say. Older teenagers such as Velasquez are so far behind that educators are trying to cram nine to 10 years' worth of learning into just a few years.

And students unaccustomed to the rigors of U.S. schools sometimes find themselves struggling with a new set of expectations.

"I like school," Velasquez said through a translator. "There's much more opportunity here, so I want to work hard."

But the schoolwork is difficult, and math is particularly tricky for him, he said. Even with the help of a Spanish-speaking aide, trying to understand linear equations sometimes makes his head hurt.

In many cases, such students must be taught more than academics. Neither they, nor often their parents, understand why they have to do homework or even why they have to come to school every day.

"They're lacking in so many social and educational skills," said Maria Garcia, an ESOL counselor at Gaithersburg High School. "Things that other kids learned in kindergarten -- how to sit still, how to learn -- they don't know, because they haven't been in school. And it's difficult because they see the difference [in ability] between themselves and their peers."

Although they might use similar teaching methods, area school systems have different strategies for working with this group of students. In addition to their regular ESOL offerings, Fairfax public schools offer evening programs at four transitional high schools targeted at immigrants 18 and older. Schools in the District offer "newcomer" courses that focus on teaching students life skills and interpersonal communication .

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