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The World Comes to DeKalb Schools

DeKalb County is the nation’s fourth largest receiver of distressed, foreign refugees. The DeKalb County School System educates 85 percent of those who come to Georgia each year.

When it’s time to change classes at the International Student Center, the air is a swirl of languages: Thai, Ethiopian dialects, Chin, Somali.

Teacher Mariana Savvitt, a native Russian speaker, is lining up students from Iraq, Burma, Nepal and Eritrea (that’s a small African nation on the Red Sea between Somalia and Ethiopia). Combining traditional methods and software, Savvitt conducts classes in “intensive English.”

Sweeping through the offices and classrooms of the student center is Sandra Nunez, super-enthusiastic director of the systemwide ELL (English Language Learners) Program. She started as a DeKalb ELL teacher in 1999. Now she supervises 15,402 students whose primary language is not English. That's about 16 percent of the DeKalb County schools’ total enrollment of 98,241.

Every teacher and student is happy to see Nunez. She stops to introduce Varavarnee Vaddhanayana, assistant principal, coordinator of the DeKalb County School System’s ESOL lab (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and author of a Somali-Arabic dictionary. A native of Thailand, Vaddhanayana arrived in 1978 to teach 11 children at the Sequoyah School. They were Vietnam War refugees.

Next Nunez greets a Tanzanian girl who has attended the center since last March. A speaker of Swahili, the student is 18 and attends eighth grade classes. She speaks English too.

The students’ rapid yet un-pressured acquisition of English speaking skills is perhaps the greatest achievement of the ELL program. Nunez has been instrumental in assembling a faculty that represents more than 25 different languages and dialects. But most of the 40-odd teachers have one thing in common: none are native English speakers.

Once an English language learner himself, fifth grade math teacher Arshad Abdul-Rasheed is a native Arabic speaker who communicates easily with students from Burma and Mexico. And Pauly Chu, who teaches intensive English to third-graders from Mali, Congo and Burma, is a native of Hong Kong who speaks Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese.

The International Student Center, with 247 students and growing enrollment, is a gateway to the public schools, but the students have traveled a very long way to get there. By the time a refugee family is ready to register students at the student center, it has experienced a long journey of sorrow and hope. The United States takes 80,000 refugees each year, and about 4,000 come to DeKalb County.

A refugee family is met at the airport by a caseworker. One of two local organizations–Refugee Family Services (RFS) and Refugee Resettlement & Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA)–is likely to arrange housing and English language classes, distribute clothing, food and other necessities, secure identification cards and help smooth what is a profound transition to American culture and society.

Advocacy and interpretation are essential services, said Debora Furce, Youth & School Services program manager at RFS, which also provides after-school youth programs, camp, health services and domestic violence prevention. Last year RFS served about 2,600 refugee and immigrant women and children from such nations as Bosnia, Sudan, Liberia, Burundi and Turkey.

“The government lets us know about the refugees who will come to DeKalb County but they may not show up for a year,” said Paedia Mixon, director of RRISA, whose caseworkers work closely with the public schools. “We receive notice about two weeks before their arrival.”

At that point resettlement services spring into action.

“We welcome new students daily,” Nunez said.

At the International Student Center, a staff of dedicated educators and administrators greets students and conducts an intensive academic screening. The school does not perform health and psychological evaluations.

“It’s like doing a crossword puzzle,” said Joanne L. Newby, who reviews and deciphers the transcripts of new students. She joined the DeKalb County School System in 1974 as a middle and high school French teacher and is an expert in translating academic records from all over the world. Of course, a student may arrive without any record of formal education.

Next the students undergo a battery of tests to determine grade level. A 17-year old may be placed in a fifth grade class for example. But the school’s teaching philosophy–“simple, slow, engaging,” according to Nunez–will enable students to succeed in math, reading and science and pass the annual Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Ultimately, students will enter one of the DeKalb County’s elementary, middle or high schools.

“Teaching at the International Student Center is a dream job,” said Doina Popovici, a native of Russia, who won the school’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2010. “I love working here; it is very rewarding.”

This column is one of two parts. The second will run next weekend.

Julia Lear April 25, 2011 at 12:12 AM
Hi, Claudia, Thanks for your comments and information. The Center for Health & Health Care in Schools at GW School of Public Health & Health Services spent 4 years working with 15 communities addressing challenges confronting immigrant and refugee children & the schools that serve them similar to those experienced DeKalb County. Participants in the RWJF-funded program, Caring Across Communities, developed a number of tools to help schools and families. You might want to check them out at http://www.healthinschools.org/Immigrant-and-Refugee-Children/Caring-Across-Communities.aspx.
Lucy Mauterer April 25, 2011 at 02:54 AM
Interesting article. I did not know we had so many refugees represented here in DeKalb County. I wonder if the children would perhaps learn English faster and with less accents if they learned to speak it from those for whom American English is the mother tongue. I often encounter folks who think they speak English, but who cannot pronounce many of our words well enough for me to understand them. I began to learn French in the third grade and always had teachers who grew up in France. I don't always remember all my vocabulary but have been told I speak my second language well enough that most French speaking people can not tell where I am from. That's what we should strive toward. And we didn't have ESL when my children were in school. My son's first wife was born in Vera Cruz, Mexico and had to learn English on the fly in 6th grade. She speaks perfect English with no accent whatsoever. There was no teacher, no coach, no special class that cost the taxpayer lots of money. Just patient friends in her new country that helped her along. That's the way we need to go back to. Our system is already overburdened and funds are very tight. Let's concentrate on the basics and let the other students help these newcomers along. Although I worked hard to learn a new language, it wasn't until I spent 3 months in France with folks who spoke little or no English that I really took off. Total emersion does work.
Claudia Keenan April 25, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Hi, Thank you for your comment. My understanding from Ms. Nunez is that teachers who have gone through the process of acquiring a second or third language are especially talented at helping new students through the process. However, I am sure that there are counter-arguments. Claudia
Lucy Mauterer April 25, 2011 at 06:02 PM
Claudia, I agree that teachers who have learned a second or third language are better equipped to help students through the process. I just advocate that the teacher of the specific language involved have that language as their mother tongue. French teachers should come from France, Spanish teachers should come from Spain, etc. You learn the delicate inflections that help you become a better communicator. If you learn from someone for whom the language taught is not their first language, you may never even hear those subtle differences. A natural born speaker will point them out to you as you learn.
Mark Olmsted April 25, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Actually, as someone who grew up with a French mother who taught French in high school, you would think I would be an advocate of native English speaking teachers of English. But I also went on to learn Spanish, Italian, and a smattering of German and Portuguese, and worked in the French Department of NYU. I can assure you that sometimes (depending on the individual) the best teacher is one who has had to learn the language him or herself. (My mother's English was stronger than my American father's in many ways.) He or she tends to understand exactly what is going to make the least sense for someone who learning English for the first time, and usually has a grasp of English grammar that many native speakers only know instinctively. As for accents, a student who learns English before puberty usually will speak without an accent; if they learn after puberty, it is very rare for anyone to completely shake it. (It is no different with regional American accents -- that's why ex-Brooklynites usually sound like it forever, unless they moved away at a young enough age.) Immersion with no preparation is generally traumatic, as young people can be particularly harsh and will grab onto whatever excuse to bully. For every quick, verbal learner who picks up English quickly, there are 4 or 5 who will be at sea, alienated and frustrated. Claudia, I hope you ask some adult graduates of both techniques (sink or swim or transition learning) about their respective experiences.

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