For some, language is not a barrier

March 2, 2006, midnight | By Pria Anand | 16 years, 7 months ago

Undeterred by initial class placement, several ESOL students enter challenging AP courses

When he lived in Ethiopia, junior Nebiat Mekonnen, then a freshman, simultaneously took classes in chemistry, physics and biology at a small private school. He was learning the principles of thermodynamics at an age when most Blair students are just transitioning into high-school science. But when Mekonnen moved to the U.S., Blair counseling placed him in an on-level Matter and Energy class because of his English skills.

Now, two years later, Mekonnen is one of 305 English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students at Blair. After skipping several classes and taking math in summer school, he signed up for AP Chemistry and AP BC Calculus this year, becoming one of only 14 ESOL students currently enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) class, seven of whom will be taking AP exams in subjects outside of the foreign language department this May. For these students, initial placement in lower-level classes further complicates the challenges of tackling AP coursework while struggling with the barriers of culture and language.

A different system

Like Mekonnen, seniors Neway and Tewodros Wolde grew up in Ethiopia. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, the brothers walked over two miles every day to a public high school of almost 3,000 students. They sat in classes with up to 100 students and learned science in lectures rather than laboratories. Textbooks were scarce, and computers were out of the question.

Their family made the decision to move to Silver Spring during the brothers' sophomore year in hopes of "a new life and a better education," Tewodros explains.

Although the Woldes brought grade transcripts from their school in Ethiopia to Blair, one of the first problems Neway faced in the U.S. was that the classes he took in Ethiopia didn't translate exactly to courses offered at Blair.

According to ESOL teacher Charles Wang, this lack of equivalence often lands ESOL students in math and science classes below their capabilities. "They have all this knowledge and nothing to show for it," he says.

But even if students do receive full credit for classes taken in their home countries, it takes time for them to acclimate to the American education system, often fundamentally different from those in other countries, according to Eileen Ariza, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and author of the book "Not for ESOL Teachers."

Mekonnen explains that the gap between AP Chemistry here and his chemistry class in Ethiopia stems from a disconnect in methodology rather than theory. Problem-solving was different in Ethiopia, he says, and a shortage of materials kept students from participating in lab activities. Now, when Mekonnen does labs in AP Chemistry, he often partners with Neway, with whom he can discuss instructions in his native language of Amharic.

"Not perfect"

Senior Xiaowen Hu, a current AP AB Calculus student who graduated from ESOL last year, has also found that the differences between schools in her home country, China, and those in the U.S. are pervasive. Although Hu's school in China was publicly funded, her family paid for textbooks and uniforms. While academics were "serious," with exams and assessments given far more weight than they are in American schools, students often doubled as unpaid building services workers to compensate for their free tuition. When an aunt offered to pay the family's passage to America, Hu's father was excited about the opportunities the move would offer for Hu.

Hu's family settled in Oregon but made the move to Maryland in the beginning of Hu's freshman year specifically for the education. However, after taking placement tests administered by the ESOL and math departments, Hu, who had already taken geometry and algebra classes in China, found herself coasting in an Algebra I class at Blair.

According to ESOL counselor James Distler, it's not uncommon for the tests, math especially, to misevaluate ESOL students' capabilities. "They're not perfect," he says, explaining that students with limited English proficiency sometimes misinterpret questions. "The tests are bubble-in, so there's no chance to explain answers. They are given with the assumption that students are average or above average at English."

"The first problem"

Mekonnen's test scores placed him in an Algebra I class his freshman year. He opted to complete both precalculus and geometry in summer school and is now struggling not only with advanced classes taught in his second language, but also because he took neither Precalculus with Analysis — a class not offered in summer school — nor AP AB Calculus, both usually prerequisites for his BC Calculus class.

Mekonnen estimates that he spends five to six hours on homework each night, two or three hours of which are devoted to his AP classes. He even quit the Blair soccer team this year — a sport he's played since he was a child in Ethiopia — in order to devote more time to schoolwork.

Although she got straight As in on-level precalculus and was recommended for AP AB Calculus by her precalculus teacher, Hu says that she, too, is struggling with the higher-level class after taking on-level math courses in summer school. "I was mixed up because I didn't realize that Calculus was the class after Precalculus with Analysis," she explains. "Nothing I learned [in on-level precalculus] was related to AP Calculus." And, she says, "the first problem is still English," which she'd studied in China but had never spoken regularly until she moved to the U.S.

The barriers of both culture and language sometimes prevent ESOL students from succeeding even in subjects that they are proficient in, according to Distler. "It's not always about skill level," he says. "It's about understanding." For ESOL students, on top of completing required coursework, classes serve as an introduction to American culture and English, Distler explains. As a result, the school makes an effort not to overload ESOL students when they first enroll in classes, he says.

An opportunity

However, for Hu, initially low placement almost kept her from taking courses that she sees as essential to furthering her education. She's taken as many classes in high school as possible — even tackling a night-school Modern World History class until the commute and extra work became too much to juggle — to save money in college.

To further prepare for next year, Hu has started seeking help with calculus from Magnet teachers during lunch and hopes to place out of the class in college with a high score on the AP exam. Even if she can't, she says AP classes afford an opportunity to learn material she will need to understand later, especially since she plans on becoming either a math or a science teacher.

For Neway, who hopes to become an engineer or a pharmacist, having access to the opportunity AP classes offer meant switching out of Mathematics and Applied Problem Solving (MAPS) and into an Algebra II class midway through his sophomore year. It meant skipping geometry entirely and taking precalculus in summer school before starting AP AB Calculus his junior year. These were necessary steps for a student who, according to Wang, knew Algebra II before entering MAPS, a pre-algebra class. Still, says Wang, "It's shocking, knowing where [Neway] is now, how he was originally placed."

Moving from on-level and ESOL classes into the AP track takes exceptional motivation, explains ESOL resource teacher Joseph Bellino. "These students have studied higher-level courses in their countries, and they're willing to accept a challenge," he says. "They came here for an education, and they'll do what they need to do to get that education."

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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