January 28, 2011

2011 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Hispanic students receive help to adapt to their new world

St. Philip Neri School teacher Tara DeRossett of Indianapolis helps sixth-grader Kevin Chaparro, center, and seventh-grader Sergio Sevilla read a book on Jan. 19 at the Indianapolis East Deanery grade school. The boys are from Mexico, and began classes at St. Philip Neri School in November. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

St. Philip Neri School teacher Tara DeRossett of Indianapolis helps sixth-grader Kevin Chaparro, center, and seventh-grader Sergio Sevilla read a book on Jan. 19 at the Indianapolis East Deanery grade school. The boys are from Mexico, and began classes at St. Philip Neri School in November. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

By Mary Ann Wyand

New country. New culture. New language. New school.

Three St. Philip Neri School students from Mexico are tackling these cultural and communications challenges with expert help from bilingual teachers and staff members as well as English as a New Language (ENL) tutoring at the Indianapolis East Deanery grade school.

Their families moved to Indianapolis last November, and the students are working hard to gain proficiency in English and other courses.

But even though the Hispanic students just moved to the United States three months ago, they still are required to complete the Indiana Statewide Testing in Educational Progress-Plus (ISTEP+) exams in March.

That’s a lot of academic pressure for children who are new to a country and culture, but Sergio Sevilla, Kevin Chaparro and Saul Sanchez said they are enjoying school and eager to learn English.

Speaking in short sentences in both Spanish and English with help from a teacher, they smile easily, are a little shy and answer questions politely.

Sergio, a seventh-grader, said he likes soccer and basketball, and enjoys learning English and math. He has made new friends, is excited about coming to his new school—which is “way better” than his old school in Mexico—and feels “good” about his classes.

Kevin, a sixth-grader, said he likes to read books in English and Spanish, and enjoys studying English and social studies. He was “a little scared, a little nervous,” about coming to school at first because he didn’t know the language and doesn’t like the cold weather, but now he is “happy” and has fun with his school friends.

Saul, a third-grader, said he likes to study English, loves music and enjoys spending time with his new friends.

“We just enrolled these new students—all from different areas in Mexico—in November,” explained Mary McCoy, St. Philip Neri’s principal. “They did not speak any English. I truly feel that this is the best place for them because we have the resources to help them and wonderful teachers who work with them every day. They are beginning to speak some English.”

Learning a new language is a daunting challenge for the boys, McCoy said. “They will have to take the social studies, science and math tests in English, and we will be accountable for their scores.”

St. Philip Neri’s faculty and staff members always have the best interests of the students at heart, she said, especially when Hispanic students require intensive preparation to meet the state’s standards for educational progress.

“They will get there,” McCoy said, “but it will take three to five years before they become proficient in the English language. I have no doubt that they will get there.”

Sergio, Kevin and Saul are enrolled in their appropriate grade levels with other students their own ages, she said, and are happy at school even though they have much work to do to become acclimated in their new environment and integrated into the curriculum.

“Their needs are great, but they have much potential,” McCoy said. “We want them to feel welcome here, and not intimidated or embarrassed as they try to use English. They are very excited to be here, and are beginning to understand their new language.

“The state [Department of Education] does allow us to do some adaptation,” she explained. “A teacher can read the ISTEP+ test to them, but it’s all in English. We can give them a longer amount of time to complete their tests. They can use a Spanish to English word dictionary, but they will be tested in a language that they have only experienced for four months.”

This year, 190 students are enrolled at St. Philip Neri School, the principal said. Ninety-eight percent of the students are Hispanic, and 99.5 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.

Language, poverty and technology gaps are big hurdles for the students, McCoy said, but they are eager to learn at school.

Students are taught computer skills, she said, but most of the children do not have access to technology at home.

“To be able to speak both languages is wonderful,” McCoy said. “How intelligent they are to be able to come to school and speak English all day then go home and speak Spanish with their families.”

Providence Sister Therese Whitsett teaches English as a New Language to primary school students there.

Instructional goals for students who are new to the culture and language—and often separated from some of their family members—start with helping them build upon their educational background from their previous school in Mexico, Sister Therese said. Then they can progress in a comfortable learning environment even though their daily life experiences are completely different.

“Regardless of their language skills, they still have to learn the coursework as quickly as they can and become acclimated to the culture here,” Sister Therese said. “It’s a challenge to help them realize that they are intelligent and they can learn, but that it’s going to take some time. … We try to keep the students feeling hopeful, to keep them animated, to keep them learning, to keep them going from day to day because in our culture we have so much that is expected of the students academically. They have to learn a lot in another language.”

Hispanic students are very social, she said. “They get along, help each other and are very good to one another.”

Tara DeRossett, who is fluent in Spanish, teaches mathematics and ENL classes for middle school students at St. Phillip Neri School. She has lived in Spain and visited Mexico 16 times, both valuable enculturation experiences that enhance her teaching skills with bilingual students.

“The kids are comfortable here,” DeRossett said. “They know that we love them. They know it’s a safe place, and that their best interests are taken into consideration at all times here. They are special students, and they are working extremely hard at school. They want to learn the English language, and they want to do well on tests. They take pride in their schoolwork, and want to do well for themselves, their teachers and their parents.” †

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