A Loss For Words

By Taylor Engler

Immigrant children combat language barriers in Syracuse classrooms

A Loss For Words

It’s recess time, and Daniel* is yanking a coat out of Alim’s* hands. Alim wails, but doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t tell the teacher Daniel accidentally switched their coats. He doesn’t ask Daniel to give it back. All he can do is cry in a room with 23 second graders who can’t understand him.

Alim is a seven-year-old from Iraq and one of many students in the Syracuse City School District who migrated to the United States. Upon their arrival, they immediately enter classrooms where they are years behind their peers. Along with Alim, there are children from Burma, Cuba, and Egypt in his classroom at Hill Elementary* where students from the Syracuse University Literacy Corps tutor. Two years ago, 15 percent of Hill’s student body was labeled “limited-English proficient,” according to the New York State School Report Card. A decorated bulletin board in Alim’s school shows a map of his peers’ homelands — Iran, Sudan, and Bosnia — proof of the variety of languages and cultures that abound at Hill Elementary.

While Alim and other immigrant children struggle with the language barrier, a variety of other literacy problems exist in the classroom. The disparity between children’s reading levels is vast — one child reads without a hitch, while the child next to him can’t pronounce the word “it.” According to the Report Card, only 41 percent of third graders in Syracuse City School Districts met learning standards in the English Language Arts State Assessment Test two years ago. The rate hovered around that number for the next few grades, dropping to 28 percent by grade eight.

Many SU students are unaware of this problem, overlooking it from their view up on the hill. Literacy Corps places SU students throughout the city to tutor and mentor in local classrooms, ranging from elementary to high schools. “We have lots of qualitative data from principals, teachers, and site coordinators about how important it is to have tutors in the classroom,” said Roberta Gillen, assistant director for Literacy Initiatives in the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service. “It is hard to get quantitative data because of other factors but we know that [tutors] help [literacy] tremendously. They are a wonderful addition to a classroom.”

Tutors, teachers, and administrators in Syracuse schools help English Language Learning students when they arrive from foreign countries. First, the students take a standardized test given by teachers trained in English as a Second Language. The students are then placed in one of three categories: non-English speaker, limited-English speaker, or proficient-English speaker.

“At Hill Elementary, there is a minimum of four [ELL students] per class,” said Mrs. Fields*, Alim’s teacher at Hill Elementary. “They have varying levels of English. The big thing that impacts them is their previous literacy in the country where they came from…The kid who comes from having no literacy in their previous language — that road is twice as long.”

Second graders like Alim get placed in classrooms with native English speakers despite their lower level of English literacy. Such inclusion may seem like a frightening prospect for non-English speakers, but children are happy to interact with their peers no matter their origin.

“It’s all about how you frame it,” Fields said. “You make them feel like they are doing something special, and then it’s different than telling them to go help Alim get back in line one more time.”

On Halloween, Fields’ class is having a party, but Isra*, a second grader from Egypt, can’t go. Teachers who assume she can’t celebrate Halloween take her away from the festivities. Isra spends the day in a separate classroom while her peers exchange treats and participate in a parade — unable to convey through her limited language abilities that they made a mistake. She doesn’t know how to say she is allowed to celebrate. She can’t articulate how much she’s been looking forward to the classroom party. When Isra returns to the classroom, she shows Fields the candy her mother sent in for her to pass out.

Fields said teachers at Hill Elementary are sensitive to each child’s needs, ensuring that the faculty and community respect differences.

When it’s clean up time, Fields asks Tyrone*, an American student, to work with Alim to move students’ backpacks onto the floor. Tyrone calls to Alim and guides him to the coatroom, where he demonstrates with a few packs until Alim catches on. He laughs and imitates Tyrone’s overemphasized grunts as they toss each bag. Outside, Isra and other girls play hopscotch and cross the monkey-bars, while Tyrone and Alim play tag.

A Loss For Words

All children need committed mentors, both Gillen and Fields said. Children will naturally fall in line with their peers, but successful children require teachers or Literacy Corps volunteers who help celebrate their different backgrounds and guide them through school.

Fields also said that another key to success is community support. She often sees community organizations link local families with immigrant families to help with simple tasks, from driving to the grocery store to using new home appliances. Newly-arrived families and their children can grow while their community accepts and assists them, and SU students help fill similar roles within and beyond the Literacy Corps.

“[SU students] can volunteer at schools or do after-school programs,” Gillen said. “They can make themselves aware of the literacy problem and the reasons for it and do what they can to help alleviate it. Our country and world will be a more productive place with 100 percent literacy. [Students need to] recognize that in the U.S. we think we are at the top of the ladder but we aren’t. We need work.”

During reading list time, Alberto* is working one-on-one with a mentor. He passes three levels of reading during his first session. Each time, he learns the latest assigned list to perfection. “I study every night,” he says.

When asked who helps him study, he responds, “I help myself. Nobody else at my home knows English.” “I am from Cuba,” Alberto says. “My mother says she brought me here to have a better life. I study every day so I can learn. I love to learn.”

SU Literacy Corps The Literacy Corps is a national program that has its roots in President Bill Clinton’s 1996 America Reads Challenge, calling on communities to take responsibility for mentoring local children. The SU Literacy Corps fostered 15 students in one city school in its first year, 1997. Today there are almost 260 student tutors at 37 different community programs or schools.

International Young Scholars Program Syracuse has a long history of housing refugee families from across the world. Today, dozens of those families come from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. This program, based in Hendricks Chapel, hosts school-aged children from these refugee families. SU students tutor and play with the children for a couple hours each week.

Say Yes to Education, Inc. Chapters of this national nonprofit foundation have been established throughout the country, and Syracuse’s chapter was established this year. SU students volunteer in after-school programs at one of several participating Syracuse schools. The chapter plans to expand to all schools in the Syracuse City School District.