Newest Arrivals Face Biggest Hurdles

In a Class Apart, Teens Labor to Catch Up

Last of three articles Jair Novello is so upset that his cheeks are flushed. Inside a classroom at Washington-Lee High School, he’s pacing and railing against the system. A group of teenagers, mostly girls, is crowded around him, but he’s too aggravated to flirt.

All of the students are in the school’s High Intensity Language Training program, or HILT. They are recent immigrants, with weak English language skills. About 1 million like them have enrolled in high schools across the nation in the last five years. At Washington-Lee, their classes are held apart from the rest of the school; their textbooks are in large print and sometimes illustrated with cartoons; their classes are sometimes taught at the third-grade level; they rarely get time in the computer lab.

And all of this has Jair, who arrived in the United States two years ago at age 15, just furious. “It’s so embarrassing when people say, ‘I learned that in the fourth grade,’ ” he tells his classmates, his voice trembling. “In Brazil, my sister was taking chemistry and biology. No wonder she left school after one year of this. It’s like we are babies or something.”

“But what can we do?” asks Linda Sorto, a Mexican teenager with long, straight hair that reaches her waist. The students decide to take their grievance to one of their favorites, social studies teacher Peter Vogel.

Vogel comes up with a challenge for them: Create computer presentations about the causes of the American Revolution, using a program that produces slide shows. He arranges a week’s worth of time in the computer lab for the students, which gives them 40 minutes each day to work on the projects. Most have never used the Power Point computer program; some have never heard of it.

All week, the students struggle, both with writing in English about the Tea Act and the Stamp Act and with learning to use Power Point. Some spend time at neighborhood libraries in the evenings to prepare for their 10-minute presentations, which will include setting up the technical program and explaining all of their charts and articulating their findings in English before a class of their peers.

On Friday, Jair (who pronounces his name Ja-EER) waves his hand so furiously asking to go first that he nearly hits his neighbor in the head. He is chosen.

The lights go down and the first screen flutters up, full of American flags. Popping sounds introduce a list of the causes of the revolution. Some words are spelled wrong, but the class does not notice. They are proud of the fancy graphics and cool sound effects.

“Ohhh,” the class cheers, applauding. Jair beams. The next students deliver their reports, with even more elaborate graphics and sound effects. Vogel is stunned.

“You guys are, like, awesome,” he says.

They are teenagers who arrive here during the most awkward time in life with a slew of problems to add to normal teen angst. They are called chentes (pronounced CHEN-teh), or “off the boat,” by some Latino and white students who grew up here.

At Washington-Lee, 300 students are in the HILT program, most of them Latino. And as schools struggle with an achievement gap between Latinos and their non-Hispanic white students — whom the kids refer to simply as “white” — these teens are a particularly tricky, often emotionally vexing, part of the problem.

The HILT program is aimed at teaching new immigrants English quickly and integrating them into regular classrooms as soon as possible. But it’s difficult to challenge students with complex ideas in a language they haven’t mastered.

“Everybody is talking to you all slow. And they usually give you these puzzles and coloring to do,” says Anielka Arellano, 17, who came here from Nicaragua in October. “You want to say, ‘You think we are dumb ’cause we are HILT.’ We want the computer stuff. We want hard stuff.”

English-immersion programs were created for specific reasons, says Joyce Peyton, vice president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, based in Washington. The objective was to “create sheltered environments where these kids could be together and learn English, quickly,” says Peyton, who spoke at a Capitol Hill conference on the issue this month. “But the downside is the isolation and that the kids are bored with the content. It’s a very tough issue.”

In many cases, academic frustrations are the least of the students’ struggles. Some have been separated from a parent or grandparent who raised them in their native country while another family member set up a new life in America.

“These guys have been through so much — parental separation, war — and then they come here with language differences as teenagers,” says Marsha Dale, who heads Washington-Lee’s HILT program. “It’s really an uphill battle even in the best of circumstances.”

Many of the immigrant students have to stay in school an extra year or two before graduating or moving to an adult education center to finish earning their degree. (Virginia allows students to stay in high school until age 22, but most leave at 20.)

Some of these immigrant students can find even the slightest interaction with their U.S.-born peers exhausting and confusing. Homecoming, yearbook, student government — many of the institutions that are sacred in America’s high schools — have no meaning for them. Often, their social lives are curtailed by their parents.

“My mom says she will not want me to go out, and if something happened to me, she could not speak English to get me back and help me,” says Marlen De la cruz, 17, from Mexico. “In my country, my cousins and my sister were always out. I could do everything. When I came here, I could do nothing. I was so scared I did not talk to anyone at school for two weeks.”

Peyton points out that regardless of the traumas immigrant students may have experienced in their home countries, “some of these students feel their greatest fears when they get here.”

“Schools in the United States are not easy places to be,” Peyton says. “Fitting in, relationships with parents, accents, hair, smell, the clothes that they wear — it’s all different.”

Ultimately, these students find their place in high school through separate activities, such as English teacher Jeanne Osso’s club for immigrant students. Many develop tight friendships and intense romances to help ease the painful transition.

“Sometimes, when you stop to think about their lives, some of them are tragic and so sad that you do wonder how they can give a damn about English grammar,” says Osso. “There are some kids who have lived through warfare. They come with war scars that American kids, I don’t know if they could understand.”

Linda’s straight black hair reached past her knees the first day she walked into Washington-Lee High School in January 2000. She took one look around and headed for the restroom, where she sat in a stall and cried.

She couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Even though she was wearing jeans and a long sweater — she had shopped carefully for the right outfit — her glossy hair, an object of pride and admiration back home, instantly set her apart. Some Latino kids taunted “chente, la migra” — off the boat, here comes the INS — words reserved for people who look new to this country.

Every night that first week, she went home and cried. Her father, who brought her to the United States, tried to soothe her: “It will get better.” And it has.

She feels like she fits in better because she cut her hair; it now reaches only to her waist. She knows her way to her classes and rarely strays from that path. And she studies all the time. She was at the top of her class in Mexico, and she’s determined to get A’s here, too. Vogel calls her one of the “best students I ever had in my life.”

As a newcomer, she finds the social situation at Washington-Lee loca. White students and Latino students don’t seem to talk to each other. And black students also keep to themselves.

She noticed that few Latinas were in advanced classes. She thought they must be frustrated by that; maybe that’s why they spent more time with boys than with books.

“I said to myself: No boyfriends, only books. Books is my fun,” says Linda, 17. Besides, where would she find the time for a boyfriend? She helps her father clean offices at night.

After class one afternoon, Jair listens to Linda describe her philosophy. Sometimes he teases her about what a goody-goody she is; she won’t go on the camping trip the HILT kids are taking next month, for example.

“She would never go camping,” Jair says, smiling at her. “Right, Linda?”

“No,” she says. “I don’t go.”

But sometimes he seems really interested in what she is saying.

He has been slacking off in his classes recently. He has gotten several A’s and B’s on his report card, but also a few C’s and D’s. “I know, I can do better,” he tells Vogel, who replies, “You’re damn right.”

Linda tells Jair that when the system frustrates her, she fights back. “At first, they put me in a Spanish class that was too easy,” she says. “I had to fight them and get it changed to a harder level. I mean, I know Spanish! Loca. Some students — Latinos and gringos — may think I am wrong to study so much. But this is what I want, and I know it’s very difficult to do it. You know you have to fight against everything here.”

Jair tells her about a white student in his non-HILT art class who thinks Jair is dumb.

“It’s because they don’t want you to be above them,” Linda says. “But I tell you, you have to ignore them. Ignore them.”

She says she will go to summer school to catch up in English. Jair announces that he might, too. Or maybe he will leave school forever, like his sister did.

He could just stay on at the auto body shop where he works after school. But the idea of college sounds appealing.

His girlfriend, Karen Cabrera, 17, chimes in. “Jair is so good in computers and math, why should he not be in IB or AP classes?” She’s referring to International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses, academically rigorous offerings at Washington-Lee. “I once heard that there are these classes, AP and IB, and I was like, ‘What’s IB? What’s AP?’ You don’t know one single person from those classes.”

Her indignation spills out. But soon she calms down and changes the subject. She asks Linda if she’s going to the prom.

“The prom?” Linda asks. “What’s that?”

Munching on carrots and sipping inky black coffee, a crowd of teachers is gathered near Vogel in the teachers’ lounge. He’s telling them about the Power Point presentations and how they helped build Jair and other students’ belief in the school’s commitment to them.

“Jair is one of those students who will always ask why. He won’t just take a teacher’s orders,” Vogel says. “So you can’t see that as this affront to your authority. It’s cool if you get them to do something creative with that. I mean, these kids have it really rough.”

Vogel started his teaching career at a private boys’ school in Manhattan, but he says he was drawn to public schools because he likes the challenge of teaching a diverse student body. He taught in Hawaii for seven years and arrived in Arlington in 1997.

Because he wasn’t a perfect student himself, he says he can relate to students who find school a challenge. “I want to try to be in my small way one reason why they feel they can succeed,” says Vogel, 37. “I believe I am more of a motivator than anything else.”

Other teachers at Washington-Lee feel the same way, but some say they aren’t always sure how to engage the students.

The alternative to English-immersion programs like HILT (or English as a Second Language, as it is known in other places) is bilingual education, in which immigrants take difficult classes in their native language while studying English on the side. But Virginia, along with many other states, has chosen English immersion.

Emma Violand-Sanchez, head of Arlington’s HILT program and once a teenage immigrant herself, wonders if some form of bilingual education might work better. But for now, she says, the district is working to perfect HILT. In 12 years, the Arlington program has been revamped three times.

While students in the first level of HILT may read some books with simple themes — “Balto, the Rescue Dog,” for example — there is also an autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.

“You have kids ask you why they are learning something that they would learn in the first grade,” says Dale, the school’s HILT supervisor, who spent months developing a more complex curriculum. “The thing is, this is not ‘See Spot Run.’ We want to expose them to all sorts of ideas and events. I feel passionately about getting them challenged.”

A group of parents, teachers and students recently sent the superintendent and the school board an 11-page memo listing their concerns about HILT.

The students “feel isolated and marginalized,” it said. “Too often, HILT students seem to be attending a ‘school within a school’ with little interaction or attention from the school community outside of the HILT program. They have to take classes that they already had in their countries. HILT students often lose interest in school.”

Superintendent Robert G. Smith says he is working on these issues and wonders if some form of bilingual education might help.

“If by teaching students in their native language we can avoid causing them to regress in subject matter, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Smith says. “But then another issue is, what do you do with the increasing number of Arabic- and Urdu-speaking students? It’s not a simple question.”

It’s the day of the big HILT camping trip, and Anielka hops on the yellow school bus and settles into a sticky seat. She’s wearing a new T-shirt that her mother bought her for this trip. It says “Guess Jeans. USA”

Anielka giggles that she should rub out the USA part. “I’m Latina forever,” she tells the other kids, 22 in all, clambering onto the bus.

Osso rolls up in her rattling 1989 white Dodge K car, unloads some sodas and chips, and they’re off. The kids have worked all year, selling Blow Pops and Starbursts, to pay for this trip. They’re headed for Hemlock Overlook, a Fairfax County park, for the weekend. George Mason University runs a program there where students learn to scale walls, walk across rivers of mud and help each other over a rolling barrel, all the while learning leadership skills and teamwork.

They’ll also stay in cabins, toast marshmallows around a campfire, dance to salsa and stay up all night.

Even though it’s just 8 a.m., the bus ride is chaotic. Two boomboxes blast: one, brought by the African and Middle Eastern kids, plays hip-hop, while the other, brought by the Latino kids, plays salsa and Christina Aguilera in Spanish.

Marlen can’t believe her parents let her go away all weekend to be with her chicas. She has been in this country for four years and now takes regular classes, but she sticks with the HILT club because that’s where her friends are.

“The American kids still think I don’t understand English,” she says. “It’s like in one of my classes where this group of kids want to do a project without me because they think I will bring down their grade or something. I told them, ‘Let me do it, too.’ ”

“Fresas,” Anielka calls out dismissively. It means strawberries, but they use it to mean snobs.

The bus chugs into the parking lot, and the students spend the whole day hiking and climbing walls and playing soccer. After a long day, the girls all rush into the bathroom to shower for the evening’s campfire and dance.

Anielka blow-dries her thick, black hair. She came to the United States when she was 9 and hated being here. She says that teachers used to speak to her in “some kind of sign language.” She went back to her country when she was 15 but had to come back again earlier this year.

No matter how much she complains, “My mother wants me here — better life.”

She is one of the social leaders of the HILT crowd. She starts putting on lipstick, curling her eyelashes. She is wearing contacts that make her brown eyes look hazel. Karen Espino Mitchell, 15, who came here from Peru in December, sprinkles glitter and stars on Anielka’s left cheek.

“Sometimes my boyfriend says I want to be white,” Anielka states, scrunching her nose. “It’s not true!”

“I am afraid to be in regular classes,” she says, first in English, then in Spanish for the girls listening to her. “I am afraid the other kids will laugh at me.” Karen looks worried.

The other girls join in. Some talk about how they’ve noticed that American girls starve themselves to look gaunt and “sucked all in, like skinny.” And how they don’t want to become like that.

The topic then turns to other Latinos at Washington-Lee, the ones who have been there since elementary or middle school.

“I hate when the Spanish kids who have been here longer make fun of us, also. You can hardly believe it,” says Anielka. “It’s like they aren’t putting themselves in our place. This was them a few years ago.”

The girls all hug each other, mutual support. And head out to the campfire.

Osso, observing them, hopes that trips like this, doing American things, and the camaraderie they build up, will give them confidence to hang out with other American students. But realistically, she knows, they end up speaking Spanish much of the time and growing even closer to their HILT friends.

“I just want them to enjoy being teenagers and have fun,” she says. “I just want them to feel normal.”

On one of the last days of the school year, Jair strolls into Vogel’s class, exhausted. Jair has grown a light beard, and his eyes are red.

He sits down, slaps Vogel’s hand to say hello and rests his head on the desk.

The last few weeks have been stressful: He was almost kicked off the soccer team for missing too many practices, and he found out he would have to stay not one but two more years to graduate, even though he would have finished high school this year in Brazil. And lately he’s been working as a waiter in addition to fixing cars to help support his family. He’s tired all the time.

One by one, he has worked through the problems. Vogel helped Jair talk the soccer coach into letting him stay on, and Jair even played on the varsity team during the final game of the season. The school year is winding down. And the prospect of more school is beginning to looks a lot better than the alternatives.

Jair stays after class and chats. He wants to stay in school, he says. He does not want to be a waiter. Linda hangs back to listen.

“You can take summer school with me,” she volunteers.

Jair smiles, weakly.

“You can take my sociology class as an elective, Jair, at school next year,” Vogel tells him, patting him on the back. This is a regular class, outside the HILT program.

“I would like to if they let me,” Jair says. Vogel tells him that they will try to figure out a way, even if Jair is not technically ready.

“That would be good, Mr. Vogel! That’s true.”

The encouragement never stops flowing in Vogel’s classroom.

During one class, he discusses the changing demographics of America. “In 2050, you guys will be the majority,” Vogel says. “Your children will have political control — we hope — of this country.”

But, he continues, “the exchange of power is not going to be pretty.”

“Sometimes you have to fight to get it,” Linda calls out from her desk.

“Yes, that’s right,” Vogel says. “And work hard.”

Jair doesn’t say anything. He’s listening, though.

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