Glendale: From ‘silent’ to savvy

Glendale News Press
March 25 2004

>From ‘silent’ to savvy

Immigrant students must absorb a lot of new language quickly in order
to beat the graduation clock.

By Gary Moskowitz, News-Press

GLENDALE – After living most of her life in Iran, Larisa Malek
Aghakhan moved to Glendale about six months ago with exceptional
language skills in Armenian and Persian but little knowledge of

With just six months to prepare, the Hoover High School sophomore
recently took the California High School Exit Exam, because by state
law, she had to. She doesn’t know how she did.

Although the California Department of Education recently agreed to
postpone the exam as a graduation requirement for high school
students, the test will be reinstated as a graduation requirement
beginning with the Class of 2006 – Larisa’s graduation year.

“The test is scary,” said Larisa, 16. “I know I need it to graduate,
so I’m hoping next year I can pass it, because I don’t think I had
enough time this year. I’ve learned many words and have a vocabulary
now. I know if I keep trying, I will make the test. I know it’s good
for my future, because I want to go to college.”


Throughout the year, the school district admits students like Larisa,
who, for various reasons, have moved to the country in the middle of
a school year.

The district by law must provide each of those students with a fair
shot at a high school diploma. The district’s Intercultural Education
Department operates the district’s English Language Development
program, which helps students like Larisa become proficient in

Larisa spends about two hours a day in her English Language
Development class at Hoover High School, during which she and other
English-language learners speak, write, read, draw, watch television
shows and films, and even sing songs to improve their English skills.

Larisa takes notes in her daily journal while watching movies like
“Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” describing what she sees
and what people are saying.

She often exchanges notes with hand-drawn pictures about prepositions
like “inside,” “around” and “near” with classmate Juan Herrera, who
moved to Glendale six months ago from Mexico.

Although Juan is much more comfortable speaking in Spanish, he can
have lengthy conversations with Larisa about topics discussed in
class, like American currency, freedom of religion and what the
lyrics of songs like “God Bless America” mean.

Juan’s English Language Development journal has fictional written
passages based on pictures he has cut out of magazines. His teacher,
Cynthia Oei, reviews all journal entries.

“I feel good because I’ve learned so much in so little time,” said
Juan, 17. “My first week, I understood nothing, but a month later I
started to understand more words. I’ll have to take finals soon, and
I think I will make the [final exam].”


Oei’s favorite part of teaching English-language learners is finding
common things that a group of students from different countries can
share a laugh over.

Oei, whose grandfather was Chinese, was raised in a household where
Dutch was the primary language. She teaches English-language
learners, ninth-grade English and creative writing at Hoover.

Colleagues often ask Oei if she misses teaching more “intellectual”
classes like Advanced Placement courses, but her response is always a
resounding no.

“ELD is my favorite thing to do,” Oei said. “To me, it’s exciting and
really fulfilling to help people who have left everything they know
behind. They’ve lost physical things like pets and their favorite
objects they couldn’t fit in a suitcase. We give them a new home and
begin to create a situation where they belong.

“I spoke Dutch before I spoke English. When I see them, I see me,
over and over again. I was born in the States, but spoke Dutch at
home and spoke English with friends, and my clothes were not like
other kids’. Our school is bigger than some of the villages these
kids came from,” Oei said.

The long-term effects of removing an English learner from the
English-language learner program is difficult to assess early on, but
research shows that removing students can be detrimental to their
long-term learning, said Mary Mason, principal at Keppel Elementary
School. Mason is a former ELD teacher.

“Some of what happens by pulling them out [of ELD] doesn’t play out
for several years,” Mason said. “You’d have to track them and see
three years down the road how they are doing. But what we know from
research is that it takes [English learners] five to seven years to
catch up to their peers. The regular curriculum doesn’t stop for
them, and grade-level standards don’t change. The kids have to
accelerate as fast as possible to catch up. That’s why we have the
ELD program, to try to give them access to the core curriculum.”

Jennifer Romeo teaches kindergarten classes at Columbus Elementary
School, where 68% of the students are English-language learners. Many
of Romeo’s students come to her with little or no English skills.

“Many of them go through a silent stage at first,” Romeo said. “We
know they are taking it all in, but they don’t say much. Luckily, we
have educational assistants who help translate, and the students’
peers help out a lot. They are like little sponges, and it’s amazing
what they pick up.

“Our major goal is to provide them with their first learning
experience and make it fun, and to let them know school is a fun
place to come. I definitely believe in that. Start them off on a
positive note. The most challenging part is that we have kids of
multiple levels of learning in every class. Everyone is not on the
same level,” Romeo said.


Columbus Principal Kelly King said the greatest gift immigrant
parents can give their child is a solid foundation in their primary
language. The second best thing they can do is get involved and stay

“With 68% of our kids in ELD, I would be happier if all of those
parents actually knew what ELD means,” King said. “We have very few
who take the next step by getting involved.

“It’s hard, because many parents are not familiar with the school
system. We have parents come in and say, ‘My son is in ELD and I want
him out.’ But that is an educational opportunity for us, really, to
explain everything to them so they can make an educated decision.

“There is a fear that the ELD kid is missing out on something
instructionally, but actually, it’s the opposite. We have an
obligation to help them meet state standards, so it wouldn’t do us
any good as a school not to do everything we can to meet that goal,”
King said.

Daily High School Principal Gail Rosental and her staff started a
two-week orientation program for incoming students and parents in
2000, because they had noticed that students and their parents – many
of them not fluent English speakers – did not how the school or the
district operated.

The orientation process begins with a three-hour student and parent
meeting that explains how students earn class credit; the school’s
tardiness, dress code and discipline policies; and how parents can be
involved and contact the school.

During the remaining time, students come to campus for four hours a
day to discuss goal-setting, anger management, reading and writing
assessments, how to assess their learning styles and learn their
teacher’s teaching styles, career assessments and alcohol awareness,
Rosental said. All of the information is translated into Armenian,
Korean, Spanish and other requested languages.

Rosental said the orientation program has yielded “amazing” results.

“We noticed that when kids came here, they didn’t feel connected, and
parents didn’t know how we operated, what they could expect from us
and what we expected from them,” Rosental said. “We have found that
parents are more than willing to come and really eager to support
their kids, if we just reach out to them.

“Many come to us with a preconceived notion that Daily is a dangerous
place, so what we want to communicate is that we know what we’re
doing, we are safe and we are happy to be here every day. If they
trust us and believe in what we’re telling them, they are going to
come out successful,” Rosental said.