Any child taking those first unknowing steps into a classroom has adjustments to make. For young immigrants who speak little or no English, the transition to school in a new country poses special challenges.

How do students learn if they cannot understand what a teacher is saying? And how do teachers, even those fluent in several languages, instruct a mixed-language class?

An innovative program at School 13 in Clifton provides some answers. Faced with an influx of Polish-speaking immigrants, educators there developed “START: A Language Readiness Program” that combines general studies with English-language instruction.

A bilingual teacher instructs a class in English and Polish, moving back and forth between each so students can understand. After a year, and sometimes sooner, the students enter mainstream classes with an understanding of English and the three R’s.

“If students sat in a classroom and no one understood them, they would be shortchanged, and other children in the room would be shortchanged, because as an educator you have to divide your attention,” Principal Mildred Mastroberte said. “We didn’t want to take one step forward and two steps back, so we developed the program here, talked to the state for ideas, and got approval from the superintendent and school board.”

START is similar to other programs designed to meet the needs of immigrants, but it is unique in its across-the-board approach. Based on need, it is currently offered to first- through fifth-grade students who have recently entered the country.

“It’s an intensive program where we’re not using bilingual education as a separate entity,” Mastroberte said. “Children can take pride in their culture; they don’t lose their own language along the way.”

Last year’s START students, now in English-speaking classes, perhaps offer the best endorsements for the program.

Without START, 10-year-old Ewa Gasiorowska said, “For sure I wouldn’t even want to go to school if I’m just sitting and do nothing because I don’t understand. I wouldn’t know how to do anything.”

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