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Language rights: Wake County educator shares ways to help bilingual students

Hello, my name is America Moreno Jimenez. I’m an ESL teacher at Sanderson High School in Wake County.

The students I work with come from all walks of life. My kids include unaccompanied minors asking for asylum and refugees fleeing from wars and persecutions that were inherited to them. Allow me to share a small glimpse of my classroom with you.

Look to the painfully shy sisters who didn’t know their ABC’s when they came to me as freshmen. The family of these girls had been displaced, and they were born into a refugee camp. When we enrolled them, I took them to the different bathrooms to show them how to use the toilets, sinks, and different paper dispensers because this is part of a hidden curriculum you will not find written in any state mandated standards. Fast forward to the end of the year and these girls are now reading at a third grade reading level, and through constant collaboration with their content level teachers, they are expected to be ending the school year with seven out of eight credits.

And I have to brag on our graduating seniors who consistently stayed after school for extra help to complete assignments. Some of them began in the Newcomer program or have gone through our school’s ESL program and not only are they graduating on-cohort, but some of them also received renewable scholarships to continue into higher education.

These successes were due thanks to the trainings and resources available in Wake County — an urban and wealthy district. Here they had access to the Newcomer Program, after school tutoring, blended and non-blended sheltered and co-taught classes, and three full time ESL teachers.

Last year, I had 10 different languages (Spanish, Arabic, French, Lingala, Swahili, Kurdish, Karen, Pashto, Farsi, and English for those curious) in my classes alone, and with their bilingualism, they become the negotiators for their families’ transition to American life, they burden the responsibility of helping their younger siblings navigate the school system, and they eventually become bridges for the rest of their communities.

As immigrants, students have to constantly navigate two worlds and two or more languages. On top of scientific and cognitive changes to the brain, this makes them skilled, compassionate, savvy, resilient, and prepared to take on the 21st century as the world continually gets smaller. These students want to be teachers, nurses, doctors, graphic designers. They want to go to four-year schools, community colleges, and straight to the workforce. One student in particular hopes to go into law enforcement. Perhaps someday she’ll be one of the first, if not the first police officer to wear a hijab in Raleigh.  

We know that language is powerful. Whether it’s media headlines, a child’s first words, the lyrics of your favorite song, or the protests of the people, language is powerful. However in schools, why do we think the power of language diminishes when it’s not in English? As a state, are we doing right by them?

Moreno holds the Educacion Sin Barreras NC logo created by one of her EL students. Courtesy of America Moreno

Seeing the low graduation rates among English learners (ELs), it seems that the answer is no. While every student in North Carolina faces unique challenges, the barriers that EL’s face are even greater. Even here in Wake County, we have lost funding needed to continue the Newcomer Academy Program. Next year, we will be losing the program at various schools, and we’ll have to be more creative with what we do to help the students.

In turn, I also worry for the rural counties and for the districts with less funding. In these districts, teachers have to split their time among multiple schools. Are the students in those districts able to receive the attention they need? Are the content area  teachers able to collaborate with the ESL teacher for the resources they need to help these students succeed?

I won’t pretend to have the answers to everything, but we must make some changes if we truly want to close the graduation gap between EL’s and non-EL’s. Schools, districts, and the state need to value the skills that bilingualism provides these students.

We like to say Latinx families and those of EL’s are not engaged with the school, but what are schools doing to engage with families? How are schools showing they care about the well being of English Learners? Do we have bilingual staff for the front office? Do schools offer bilingual programs?

Again, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some thoughts on what we can do to help out a little.

  • Schools should offer family engagement nights focusing on navigating the school system.
  • We should have more bicultural/bilingual counselors, psychologists, and educators that families can  more readily communicate with.
  • Funding should be provided so districts can offer supplements for bilingual individuals to work in schools with high numbers of LEP students.
  • Just as certain students with IEPs are allowed to graduate at age 22 instead of 21, we should make  exceptions for our EL’s who are on the brink of graduating but need a little more time before aging out.
  • Classes for EL’s should be sheltered or have co-teachers who have content area and language expertise. At the least a TA who can help with the various needs the kids have.
  • More dual-language programs and more cultural and language focused trainings are needed for content area teachers.
  • High schools should have flexible schedules for the students who have to work to support their families.
  • Students who are just starting to learn the language should not be forced to sit through standardized exams that can’t measure the growth they’ve made through the school year.

And most of all, our students and their families deserve to have a school environment where their bilingualism is celebrated. There have been times other teachers say, “They can’t speak English. What am I supposed to do with them?” and at first I didn’t know how to reply. Now with a little more experience, I know it takes some time, but eventually the kids are alright. However, as we wait, we need to demand more resources from our legislators so we can say, “They can’t speak English yet, but I feel prepared to help them learn.”

America Moreno Jimenez

America is an ESL teacher at Sanderson High School in Wake County. She was born in Mexico but immigrated to the US at the age of 2. She believes education is one of the most precious possessions an individual can have and is committed to ensuring that all students have equitable opportunity to reach their goals.