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In A Class Of Immigrants, The First Day Of School Brings Different Challenges

Newcomer Academy

Scott Wade is the only native English speaker in his third period class.

He's the teacher, and his students come from across the world. Many arrived in the United States just months ago from countries that include Syria, Venezuela, Congo and Cuba.

As they filed into his classroom at the Jefferson County Public School district's ESL Newcomer Academy Wednesday morning and took their assigned seats, Wade began speaking in English.

He knows a smattering of phrases in the languages these students speak. He's fluent only in English and Mandarin, but nobody in class speaks Mandarin. And the students' English language skills need work.

So this year, which for many students is their first in an American classroom, Wade will teach in English.

This means Wade has to talk slowly, use a lot of visuals and repeat questions frequently. It can be slow going at first, but the students learn quickly. They'll soon have a language foundation to build on for a lifetime.

The constant use of English is key, Wade said, to helping these students hone their English skills for the time when they transition out of the ESL Newcomer Academy and into a more traditional school in the district.

Next year, these students will likely be in a class with other American students, native English speakers. Without this class, they'll fall behind, Wade said.

These first days are essential for learning where his students' "baseline" is, he said.

"Where do we go from here, how do we build them up," Wade said.

This class is called ESL 1. It's an entry level course to the English as Second Language education concept that each class focuses on at the Newcomer Academy.

Gwen Snow, the principal, said every class has a component of English language learning.

"We're teaching the same content that they would have at any school in the district, but we are doing it while we're teaching English," she said.

Visuals also play a key role in Wade's class. For instance, when he asks the students if they understand their schedule, only a few nod their head yes.

But when he picks up a schedule and asks if everyone understands, nearly the whole class nods.

"This may be the first consistent English they've heard in their life," he said.

The challenge is shared by all the students in the class, too, he said.

Importantly, there are no snickers when one student struggles to read a sentence. Instead, other students help out.

We asked 14-year-old Nathali, who arrived in the United States seven months ago from Venezuela, what's the toughest part about being a new student in a new country, and she didn't quite understand the question. So she looked to her friend, 15-year-old Emilson, who's been in America for about a year and a half.

He was quick to answer: It's this.

"You don't know how to say nothing," he said. "It's confusing."

For the students in Wade's class, the teacher is hoping next year might not be so tough.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.