For uprooted students, a foundation in learning

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Allie O'Hora | 14 years, 4 months ago

Unique ESOL program provides support for international students

Senior Soonto Mukhtar stared, bewildered, at the pages of a reading primer in front of her. The curves and angles of the text looked as meaningless as scratches in the dirt. It was Mukhtar's first day at Blair, her first time sitting at a desk and certainly her first time opening a book. Mukhtar, then 17, had never learned how to read in any language — she had never attended school before.

Five years have passed since that day in 2001, and today, Mukhtar, a native of Somalia, has graduated from the ESOL program. This June, at age 21, she will graduate with the senior class. "For a girl who had never been to school until she came [to the U.S.], she's come a long way," says ESOL teacher Jane Winter.

Mukhtar attributes her success to her own determination and to the supportive environment of a unique program called Multidisciplinary Education, Training and Support (METS), a division of the ESOL department. METS, like ESOL, is designed for non-English speakers, but METS is geared towards students who have experienced a significant interruption in their schooling. Many of the 38 Blair students currently enrolled in METS, like Mukhtar, have never attended school because of widespread poverty and civil unrest in their homelands. But these students share more than a common history — most of all, they are united by a drive to learn and to succeed.

"Little by little"

METS, versions of which exist at elementary and middle-school levels throughout the county, aims to help students regain the academic ground they have lost as quickly as possible. According to ESOL counselor James Distler, the program is centered around specialized reading classes and language labs, but its standout feature is its small class sizes, often consisting of just three to four students to a teacher. This ratio, he says, allows for the individual attention and support necessary to foster real progress. Most students are so behind that they have to begin from an academic level significantly lower than their age would indicate. "It's not uncommon to see kids reading out of a second-grade primer," he says.

Mukhtar, too, started small, reading children's books over and over again and rehearsing the pronunciations of common English words. Yet her motivation was evident to her teachers even from the beginning. On top of everything else, she was already four months pregnant and had left her husband behind in Africa. But she studied hard, memorizing verb conjugations and drilling her multiplication tables late into the night, up until a month before the baby's birth. She returned to school just a few weeks after her daughter was born.

Mukhtar had immigrated to the U.S. with her mother and six brothers and sisters, fleeing the prolonged after-effects of the bloody Somalian Civil War in the early 1990s. Before they departed for America, the family had spent seven months in a makeshift refugee camp outside Nairobi, living among displaced Sudanese, Kenyans and fellow Somalians. Conditions in the camp were crowded and miserable, and because of a bitter drought, there was rarely enough food or water to go around, Mukhtar says.

Though Mukhtar was eager to escape the camp and come to the U.S., it was not an easy decision, since she was forced to leave not only her husband but also several of her siblings behind. She has not seen them since.

Once she arrived in America, Mukhtar enrolled in the METS program almost immediately and devoted herself to her studies. In Somalia, her family did not have the money to send her to school; regardless, educating women was not a top priority. At age 17, she began her education from the level of a kindergartner. "It was very difficult," she says. "I learned little by little."
Unbelievable leaps

Winter says that from Mukhtar's first day at Blair onward, her determination has made her progress possible. "Soonto is a great success story," says Winter. "She has an iron will — she just does not give up."

Winter, who has seen many other students over the years who begin METS with no prior schooling, says that these students are so determined that they often make years of progress in a short amount of time. "They make unbelievable leaps, but it's so difficult, because they're learning the language at the same time," she says.

Nationwide educational studies confirm that the language barrier in the classroom is often an insurmountable obstacle for students who have had limited education. In an article evaluating efforts to reform English language learning programs across the U.S., Harvard education researcher Nonie Leseaux writes, "If you have a newcomer enter high school in 10th grade, that is a very short period of time to work with them and bring them up to speed for an outcome like graduation or postsecondary education." It can be almost impossible, she says, for students from such disadvantaged backgrounds to graduate with their peers.


Disheartened by their slow progress, many of these students decide to drop out. Mukhtar's brother Abdi also attended METS for several years but ultimately decided to find work instead of continuing with his studies. "He did reach a point where it became overwhelming for him," says Winter, who also taught Abdi.

Since many students come from war-torn countries, Distler says as a METS educator, he is constantly struggling to empower students despite the atrocities of their pasts. "Many of them have no family because their parents were killed," he says. "We hope to become their family for a short period of time."

According to Winter, immigration status is probably the biggest obstacle to education, since a significant portion of METS students enter the country illegally. With the recent political uproar over border security, more illegal immigrants are being apprehended than ever before. Winter says that several of her students have upcoming court dates to establish whether they will be allowed to remain in the U.S. "It doesn't look good for them," she says.

Junior José Ramos is one of those students. Before coming to the United States, Ramos lived in rural Honduras, where he attended school only intermittently. He was apprehended last November as he illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. After being detained for about a month, he was eventually released on $5,000 bail to his family to await trial, but he believes he will probably be deported soon. And if he is allowed to remain in the U.S., Ramos says that the financial hardship of his migration, compounded by his legal fees, will probably force him to drop out of school and find work.

A looming threat

Even if Ramos is able to remain in school, it is unlikely that he will be able to graduate in time, meaning that he may face yet another hurdle: the standardized tests that students from the classes of 2009 and beyond must pass to graduate.

Mandatory functional tests like the HSAs pose a significant threat to the METS program, say teachers, because it is simply impossible for many of the METS students to pass them. In her study, Lesaux found that fully 60 percent of students classified as ESOL received failing scores on required functional tests. This rate is likely to be even higher for METS students.

For the students who cannot pass functional tests like the HSAs, Bellino feels it would be in their best interest to focus on career preparation instead of getting a diploma. "People don't like admitting that there are some kids who aren't going to graduate, but it's the truth," he says. "Our hope is that we can give students certificates of attendance and that they will leave better prepared for the world of work."

High hopes

Mukhtar and her peers, however, are determined. Most say they plan to attend college. Romero wants to become a teacher, and Mukhtar wants to become a nurse and support her family.

In the future, Mukhtar hopes that through education, she can ensure a brighter future for herself and for her daughter. It's a sentiment echoed by METS graduates of the past and embodied by the students of the program's future. In an article published last year in Silver International, one graduate wrote: "If I compare my life from leaving my country and coming to the United States, I feel like I was in a dark room and somebody came and turned on the lights for me. Education has opened my eyes and opened doors for me and for everybody."

Allie O'Hora. Allie O'Hora is a CAP senior. If you make fun of her last name, she will kill you and make it look like an accident. More »

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