Montgomery Aims to Fill In Gaps for Teen Immigrants

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gerber Lisama started school at age 6. At 7, he was working in Salvadoran cornfields. Toiling in the morning, studying in the afternoon, he needed three years to complete first grade.

Now 17, Lisama is a freshman at Gaithersburg High School. But after a year in the United States, he speaks almost no English, writes choppily in Spanish and cannot compute beyond simple arithmetic.

Yesterday, Montgomery County school officials announced a pilot program tailored to the specific needs of students such as Lisama: recent immigrants who have had little formal education although they are reaching the age when most native-born Americans graduate from high school.

"Over there, people don't think school is a big deal," Lisama said. "Even if people get their degree, there's no work."

The program, Students Engaged in Pathways to Achievement, would begin this summer at Wheaton High School, a campus serving a large immigrant population, and focus initially on about 15 students in their late teens. Students would be taught functional English, with an emphasis on career-specific vocabulary. Other classes would explore careers, including horticulture, cosmetology and hospitality. Students also would be taught to read and write fluently in their native Spanish.

The program confronts the realities facing teenage immigrants who escape poverty and upheaval in El Salvador and other Latin American nations for a better life in the Washington suburbs. They arrive unable to speak much English, unable to read or write well even in Spanish, with vast gaps in their formal education and too near adulthood to make up for lost schooling.

Lisama, who lives with a brother and a cousin in Montgomery Village, counts on his fingers the number of times he repeated the first, third and fifth grades in his Salvadoran village. He recalls odd lapses in his patchwork of an education; for one thing, he does not remember taking a social studies class, because the village school didn't offer one. He lived 10 months in the United States before enrolling in school, working full time as a mechanic to cover the cost of his journey.

He would like to earn a diploma and go to college. "I have to be positive," he said. But a more pressing goal is to learn enough English to move beyond fixing cars.

Hispanic leaders and parents approached the school board last spring with a request for three broad changes to address the achievement gap that has separated Hispanic students from whites and Asians, especially in high school. One was to better serve immigrants who arrive as teens with a limited formal education; the others were to increase Latino parent involvement and to improve the "competency" of school-system staff and programs in handling the Spanish language and the Latino culture.

Immigrants who enter U.S. schools with sparse English skills are typically steered into such programs as English for Speakers of Other Languages, where the goal is to teach students enough English to function in school and society.

This model falls apart, Hispanic leaders say, with older immigrants who have had little formal education. There isn't time for them to compensate for years of lost schooling, and the students know it. So they tend to focus on more practical goals.

"They want to get a job, they want to learn English, and they want a better life," said Michael Cohen, director for instructional programs in the Montgomery schools.

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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