For students who speak a language other than English at home, it can take years to learn English well enough to pass tests at school.
For refugee students – many of whom never went to school – it can take even longer.
“Some of them have never held a pencil,” says teacher Emma Jones, who works with refugee students at Gladstone Elementary in the Kansas City Public Schools. “Scissors are a big thing. Here, that's very commonplace, but in other countries, having a pair of scissors is kind of a luxury if you're in a refugee camp.”
There’s a sign in the front office at Gladstone that welcomes families in more than 50 languages. Burmese, Karen, Arabic, Swahili, Spanish, Somali and Kibembe are all spoken at the school. But even here, where the majority of kids speak a language other than English at home, Jones’ students are different. It’s up to her to teach them not just English, but how to go to school in the U.S.
Teaching the basics
Calendar time is how kindergarten teachers introduce the days of the week and months of the year. Jones does the same activity with her fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
“Does anyone know what day it is?” she asks.
“October?” one girl guesses.
“When I ask what day it is, what does my answer have to have in it?” Jones says. “The word ‘day.’ Yesterday was Monday, so what day is it today?”
“Tuesday,” Jones repeats encouragingly.
All of Jones’ students are recent immigrants. Most are Congolese.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m from Kenya’ or ‘I’m from Tanzania,’ but they all were resettled or born in a different refugee camp,” Jones says.
Many of her students haven’t been in school consistently because their families were fleeing violence. They need both intensive intervention and to be taught concepts other students take for granted.
For example, take a lesson that Principal Dana Carter observed last month. Jones was reading a book about a swimming pool.
“Nobody in the class knew what a diving board was,” Carter says. “So the teacher had to pull up a video, talk about the diving board, what it does, how it springs when you jump on it. And that's just one word.”
These kids will have to learn thousands of words to have any chance of catching up with their peers.
Lessons on life in America
Jones has to start with the most basic of phrases, what she calls “emergency English.”
“We want them to know if they ever got lost or if anything ever happened, they'd be able to say, ‘My name is Emma, and I speak Swahili,’” Jones says.
Jones used to have students for a full day. But as federal immigration policies have restricted the number of refugees entering the country, fewer of them are ending up at Gladstone. Now Jones has older kids for half the day and younger kids for half the day. There are benefits – before, many students spent the entire day with friends who spoke the same language.
“Now, when they go back to class, they are having to speak English right away, and they have to learn it, so sometimes they're picking it up quicker because they don't have that security of their best friend right there,” Jones says.
But it also leaves Jones less time for lessons on life in America. She tries to explain personal hygiene to her students, most of whom who’ve never seen a stick of deodorant.
“They don't have clothes that match our norms for girls and boys,” Jones says. “So a boy might come in a little girl's coat with flowers and not know any different.”
Jones will find him another coat and tell him to give the pink one to his sister.
English takes times
A landmark study of students in Los Angeles Unified, which educates more English language learners than any other school district in the country, found that only three percent of kids who started with beginning levels of proficiency were able to leave their ELL classes after three years.
Even after a year in the sheltered classroom, Jones’ students have a limited command of English. And therein lies the challenge for schools that educate a lot of refugees – they’re still expected to take state tests, often right away. Missouri law only exempts new-to-the-country students from one test, English language arts, and only for one year.
“Even the next year, that’s an extremely tough text to read,” Principal Carter says. “And then in math and science, there’s a lot of reading components on those tests as well.”
Researchers estimate it takes English language learners three to five years to speak fluently, and up to seven to read and write proficiently. Suzanna McNamara developed the curriculum for Bridges to Academic Success, a New York City program to help high school students with limited English proficiency who aren’t literate in their native language.
“Do we think it’s insane that a kid would be sitting the New York State Regents Exam in global history just because they’re in tenth grade even though they’re barely able to read? Yes,” McNamara says. “Policies generally do not take into account the skills kids actually have when they’re sitting for a standardized test like that.”
McNamara says it doesn’t make any sense to compare students like the ones in Jones’ class to peers who’ve been in school much longer. She says assessments that measure students’ progress toward targeted skills make a lot more sense.
“These kids need to bridge a huge gap. We know that, but can schools have the time and the space to figure out what they need?” McNamara says. “Because it’s not to sit for that Regents Exam. It might be learning to write a single sentence.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.