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.