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Montgomery Aims to Fill In Gaps for Teen Immigrants

Gerber Lisama, 17, who takes ESOL classes at Gaithersburg High School, would like to earn a diploma and go to college. But a more pressing goal is to improve his English.
Gerber Lisama, 17, who takes ESOL classes at Gaithersburg High School, would like to earn a diploma and go to college. But a more pressing goal is to improve his English. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Antonio Quintanilla, 17, was an eighth-grader on paper when he left El Salvador for the United States last year. But his education was fraught with interruptions. His aunt held him back in the first and second grades to keep him in the same classes with a struggling cousin. He lost a year of schooling at age 12 to care for his dying father and tend the family's cattle. Upon his arrival at Gaithersburg High last year, Quintanilla tested at the second-grade level in math. He has since progressed to fourth grade.

Cohen and other Montgomery educators said they searched the nation's immigrant-rich school systems and found few examples of programs designed specifically for older teenage immigrants such as Lisama and Quintanilla.

The closest equivalent in Montgomery is called Multidisciplinary Education, Training and Support, or METS. About 340 students ages 9 and older are taught in small classes -- the goal is about 15 students -- by teachers who specialize in basic literacy, in lessons that employ simple terms, visual cues and body language. They also get help adjusting academically and socially to the school setting.

Fairfax County schools offer a similar program, and schools in the District offer a battery of courses to new immigrants that focus on life skills and interpersonal communication.

But immigrant leaders are dissatisfied with METS. Classes are too large and serve too broad a range of ages and educational attainments, said Candace Kattar, executive director of Identity Inc., a Gaithersburg nonprofit group serving the immigrant community. She faults the program, too, for accepting only students who report, in conversations or through school records, that they have missed two or more years of school.

An independent analysis of the program last year by the Latino Education Coalition, a new collaboration among local groups, found students enrolled in METS were dropping out at a rate of 40 to 50 percent in a single year at some schools.

"Basic things, like how to function in a school, overwhelm them," said Margaret Van Buskirk, an ESOL teacher at Gaithersburg High who is writing curriculum for the pilot program.

The $155,000 pilot program was approved as part of the school system's nearly $2 billion budget request for the fiscal year that begins in July and will go forward unless cut from the final spending plan. If successful, it would be expanded to other high schools, such as Gaithersburg, with large concentrations of Latin American immigrants.

"We don't rule out any options," said Karen Woodson, director of ESOL programs in the county school system. A high school diploma, she said, "is our ultimate goal. But let's keep some things in perspective. There may be cases where we know a high school diploma is not reasonable. So we want to provide meaningful options to them as well."


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