Program helps immigrant students learn English and prepare for HSA in a mere two years
The words "bus," "school," "stop" and "secretary" are written on the overhead screen at the front of the classroom. "Jose, spell 'office,'" requests Margarita Bohórquez, a teacher in the Multidisciplinary Educational Training and Support (METS) Program.
Sophomore Jose Iraheta puts aside his "New Arrival English" workbook and swiftly articulates each letter, "O-F-F-I-C-E," as he writes the word on the paper in front of him. His seven classmates echo his pronunciation.
Iraheta, who moved to the United States in November of last year, entered the METS program as a ninth grader. He left his native country of El Salvador with a fifth-grade-level education. The METS program helps students who, like Iraheta, have interrupted educations and have recently immigrated to the U.S. become literate in English quickly.
The individualized learning and personal support of the METS program aids these students in their uphill struggle to scale language and cultural barriers as they prepare to face the ominous Maryland Functional tests required for graduation. The path will become steeper if, as MCPS plans, the more threatening High School Assessment (HSA) exams replace the functional tests as graduation requirements.
"A double whammy"
Preparing themselves with the essential literacy skills and an adequate knowledge base is a daunting and difficult task for Bohórquez's students, who often enter the METS program with elementary-level educations as a result of poor instruction in their home countries. "Generally, my students come from war-torn countries in poverty. [In their native countries], they can't get to school or it's a one-schoolhouse situation," explains Bohórquez. "It can be a slew of things, but the root cause is some form of poverty."
Junior Norma Menjivar, once a METS student but now an ESOL level four student taking mainstream classes, attended a small school in El Salvador taught by her aunt before coming to the U.S. Amidst a civil war, her education was limited to four hours of learning a day.
Upon her arrival in the U.S., Menjivar found herself in drastically different surroundings—a new country with a new culture and language, a new school system and a new family—unable to read, write or speak English as an eighth grader at Takoma Park Middle School.
Like Menjivar, all METS students have experienced some form of interrupted education, either an actual halt in education or a disparity between education level in their native country as compared to their age-based placement in the U.S. school system.
Despite the students' disadvantages, Montgomery County expects them to learn English and the content of the regular high school curriculum as they face the strains of an unfamiliar culture, says ESOL counselor Rosemarie Dapena.
The METS program, which spans only two years, attempts to advance students who may be as many as eight years behind academically. Bohórquez feels the county's expectations are unrealistic given the amount of progress that time allows.
While METS students are exempt from the Maryland Functional tests and other major exams during their two years enrolled in the program, they must inevitably face these high hurdles. According to METS math teacher Jane Winter, her students often take the functional tests upwards of five times before passing. For the average high school student, these tests are expected to be passed in middle school.
The entire ESOL department views the HSAs with great apprehension given the difficulties the functional exams already pose to their students. The department therefore continues to advocate the availability of an alternate certificate or license in place of a high school diploma. Such a system would recognize the students' significant achievements without establishing disheartening or unattainable goals.
ABCs to HSAs
In room 262, METS reading teacher Eugenia Semirot points to the pencil sophomore Iraheta holds in his hand. "This pencil," she says, articulating each word distinctly. She then directs her index finger toward a pencil in the hand of freshman Edward Halabi, who sits quietly reading from The Picnic Ship. "That pencil," Semirot pronounces.
While Semirot works individually with Iraheta on possessive adjectives, his classmates read stories on their own at desks in groups of four. Each student studies at a different reading level in the sequence of stories beginning with the tale of Biff and Tiff and progressing to The Magic Bean.
Within the single reading support class, the academic levels range from learning the alphabet and colors to reading fifth grade level books. Semirot is able to address the varying learning demands with the help of teacher's aids such as senior Ingrid Gonzalez, once an ESOL student herself.
Currently, Blair's METS program has eight students from five different countries in the first of two levels. While freshmen Priscilla Kai and Halabi from Liberia can communicate fairly well in English, the other Hispanic, Somalian, Senegalese and Ethiopian students speak little English.
In Bohórquez's language arts class, METS students learn English grammar and build their vocabularies, while Semirot's reading support class emphasizes phonics and decoding skills, which enable students to associate pronunciation with the written word. METS students also take math and geography classes within the program.
According to Winter, in her math class she works to establish the groundwork for the Maryland Functional Math Test. For some students, this means learning to count in English. Winter notes that usually her METS students do not yet know how to add or subtract. In less severe situations, she works to re-teach the math they already know but this time in a new language.
Menjivar, who left the METS program last year and passed all three Functional tests, feels the METS teachers greatly helped her prepare. Though she studied a lot on her own, she still found the exams extremely challenging, especially the reading exam. "There were so many words I just didn't understand. Others thought that there was too much writing, like, three pages!" expresses Menjivar. "They didn't have enough vocabulary [for that]."
Although Bohórquez wishes she could just start all over with her METS students, she hopes to help them get as far as they can in their time within the program.
Vivian Wang. Vivian Wang, a senior at Blair, is a first year Managing Sports editor for Silver Chips. She is in the Blair Math, Science, and Computer Science Magnet Program, yet has equal interests in the humanities and arts. In fact, she belonged to the Eastern Humanities … More »