English Classes Open Horizons for New Islanders


The morning lesson Tuesday in Matt Malowski's class at the regional high school starts off with calisthenics for the tongue. They are trying to master one of the most common and — for foreigners — one of the most confounding of English words.

"He pulled his tongue in and blew air out," says Mr. Malowski, getting down to the nitty-gritty of lingual mechanics. "Perfect, you just said ‘the' with no accent, just like an American."

There are 11 students in room 312, and the class is English 1, specially designed for students who are still learning English.

The classroom, tucked in a remote corner of the sprawling Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, is not unlike a frontier, a border station for high school students who came here from Brazil or from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico or Uruguay.

The faster they can acquire English skills, the sooner they can shift all their classes into the mainstream of the high school.

"Our goal is to get them out of there as quickly as we can," says Michael McCarthy, the high school's director of guidance.

Of the 814 students enrolled at the regional high school, 44 are counted as English Language Learners (ELL).

The number of ELL students in the Vineyard public schools has surged in the last several years. In 1998, Island schools listed only 49 students system-wide who came from homes where English was not the primary language.

The tally now stands at 127, or just under six per cent of the total enrollment of 2,282. Those numbers are beginning to level off now. The Tisbury School and Oak Bluffs School — having the highest concentration of ELL students on the Island — have seen only small increases in the last year.

But make no mistake: The task of educating students who don't speak English has posed a significant challenge to the schools here.

"Twenty-five per cent of one of the first grade classes here speak no English. That's five of the 20 students in that classroom," says Emily Broderick, the Tisbury School's reading coordinator, who has traveled to Brazil to learn Portuguese, the dominant language among the Vineyard schools' ELL population.

One year ago, investigators from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, responding to a complaint from an Island parent, uncovered a host of shortcomings in ELL programs at the K-8 schools in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, ranging from poor training of staff to the use of unreliable computer programs to help teachers translate for the foreign language-speaking students.

Despite some bristling at the criticism, the schools across the Island responded, beefing up teacher training and taking steps to improve communications with parents. Report cards, for example, are now translated into Portuguese.

Two types of training are offered to Vineyard teachers and teaching assistants. One focuses on oral assessment, that is, learning how to rank an ELL student's English ability on a scale of zero to five. At least 40 teachers have completed training in oral assessment programs. An equal number have taken training in how to retool their curriculum.

The other is dubbed structured English immersion, which is now the official policy for educating the ELL school population across the state. Massachusetts voters decided two years ago to abandon bilingual programs in favor of placing students who don't speak English in the regular classrooms.

"In structured English immersion, teachers have to adapt their instruction to make it accessible," says Sharon Switzer, the director of English Language Learning for Vineyard schools. "They use visual aids, manipulatives, relate what they're doing to prior knowledge."

Back at the high school, Mr. Malowski employs one of these tricks to make a distinction, holding a narrow-spined workbook up against a huge textbook. "This book is thick. This book is thin," he says.

Ms. Switzer and Marge Harris, the Vineyard schools' curriculum coordinator, have just written and distributed a two-page flier of teaching tips. "Label objects in your classroom in English and in the first language of the ELLs," the document states.

Teachers are also encouraged to understand cultural differences: "In some cultures, it is disrespectful to disagree with a teacher. ELLs who answer ‘yes' to every question you ask may be trying to be polite."

Classroom teachers, particularly in the K-8 schools, also have some support. At Oak Bluffs, Rae Carter spends four days a week in the classroom, shadowing ELL students and making sure they are learning what the teacher is teaching.

Sometimes, that means simply a few words of encouragement. "You draw better than he does," she says to one sixth grade girl — an ELL student — who is replicating the diagram of a science experiment that teacher Leonard Schoenfeld just drew on the dry-erase board.

Ms. Carter heads upstairs to watch over four ELL students in Eve Hayman's eighth grade math class. The content this day is rugged: simplifying radicals.

The lesson is fast-paced, but Nick Umpierrez, who arrived at the school from Uruguay in September, is one of the stars in the class, raising his hand to answer questions.

"He came here with a lot of English," says Ms. Carter. "And he's a bright kid, able to hang in there."

Others come here with very few or no English skills. "They feel the most frustration," says Ms. Carter, who has hung a map of South America on the wall of her tiny office.

Neither Ms. Carter nor her assistant, Anne Colangeli, who works there 25 hours a week, speaks Portuguese.

"It doesn't come up often as a necessity," Ms. Colangeli says. "You have them teach you a few words, show them you're interested. You can see their faces light up."

Still, some teachers have knuckled down and studied Portuguese. Mr. Schoenfeld took a trip to Brazil to learn the language and is going back this summer. He now teaches English once a week to a group of adult Brazilians.

But while some teachers have reached across the language barrier to learn Portuguese, there's also a strong argument for a cold-turkey approach to clamping down on the mother tongue inside the classroom.

At the regional high school, Mr. Malowski's teaching assistant, who recently left to take another job, was fluent in Portuguese. The question is whether to hire a replacement who knows Portuguese.

"We need to force more English in there," says Mr. McCarthy.

"Trying to get them to not speak Portuguese is my biggest challenge," adds Mr. Malowski.

Juliana Silveira, a senior in the English 1 class, misses the assistant. "An ESL (English as a second language) teacher who only speaks English can't help me," she says.

But her classmate, freshman Ednaldo Freire, disagrees. "If you have people who speak Portuguese, then you don't ever speak English," he says.

A case in point, says Mr. Malowski, is 15-year-old Fabio Silva. He came here from Brazil last fall but lives with an American family.

"He's totally immersed and after just a couple months in English 1, he was ready to move up," says Mr. Malowski.

Back in the elementary schools, the ELL students are instantly mixed into the regular classroom.

In Kate Tynan's kindergarten class at the Tisbury School, for example, two Brazilian students — Leone Olegario and Karem Guimaraes — are right in the mix, playing a game of bingo that matches words and pictures.

"In the lower grades, it's easy to get that kind of interaction," says Anna Dye, the teacher coordinating the Tisbury School ELL program. "The younger ones don't have the inhibitions."

At the high school, the ELL students spend about half their day with Mr. Malowski and the other half in the mainstream classes.

"Brazilians and Americans don't mix that much," says Mr. Malowski, who has invited his ELL students to practice with the girls' soccer team (made up of 16- and 17-year-olds) that he coaches.

Mr. Freire and Miss Silveira confirm that it's hard for their peers to muster the courage to speak English, not only to Americans but also among themselves.

"Six months after I came, I knew English, but I couldn't speak it," says Miss Silveira. "I was scared, embarrassed."

"You think, ‘If I speak it, he'll laugh at me, he'll make fun of me,'" says Mr. Freire.

The Brazilian students from Mr. Malowski's class cluster together in the school cafeteria, sitting at two abutting tables and munching on slices of pepperoni pizza and French fries doused in ketchup and mayonaise.

Some Brazilians, Mr. Freire says, can sense a lack of acceptance. "There's always that racism."

There are other challenges. Patrick Oliveira, now 22, can remember feeling totally lost when he attended a biology class at the high school three years ago. He left the school and enrolled in the twice-weekly adult learning class to earn a GED (general equivalency diploma).

So far this year, at least six Brazilian students have left the school, according to Mr. McCarthy's records. The main reason, he says, are the demands of the job market. Some students are trying to go to school and hold down jobs.

"They won't come into the school until the jobs dry up, hit us in November or December, and then some disappear in May when the jobs get richer," says Mr. McCarthy.

Parents of ELL students offer some perspective on their children's experience. Sitting in an advanced English class on a recent evening at the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Partnership, Maribel Umpierrez — mother of the math whiz in Oak Bluffs — says she credits the teachers who stay after school to help her son and daughter with homework.

The father of a third grader in Edgartown, Edson Favoreto says his daughter's English skills are progressing but he worries about helping her with homework and the message it sends when he can't decipher her assignment.

"She asks me for help, and I try to help," he says. "But sometimes I don't understand it, and she doesn't do it. People think we don't worry about it, they think you don't care."