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Fifth-grader at J.V. Washam is a leader in ESL program

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  • Meet Juan David Loreto

    Age: 11

    School: J.V. Washam Elementary

    He loves soccer: He plays on a team (left back), and his favorite professional team is Barcelona.

    The trickiest English words to say: Pronouncing “cinnamon” versus “similar.”

    His favorite president: Abraham Lincoln: “He fought for freedom, that every man and woman should be treated fairly.”

    He might be a young Antonio Banderas: “They like my accent,” he said of his classmates, grinning.

    His dream jobs: Lawyer and mayor.

    Advice he’d give an ESL student: “Think what you’re going to say first” and “Never give up. Don’t worry if you don’t speak English right now, because you’re going to learn it someday.”

    Favorite books: The Theodore Boone series by John Grisham, and books by Rick Riordan, including “The Lost Hero” and “The Son of Neptune.”

The kindergartners, brows furrowed, try to spell “ladybug” on their small white boards.

“That’s supposed to be a ‘g,’ OK?” says Juan David Loreto, a fifth-grader.

Juan David, 11, has worked this year in J.V. Washam Elementary’s ESL (English as a Second Language) Buddy program, which gives extra help to children in the ESL program. He’s been a star.

“He’s just a leader at heart,” said Jen Williamson, an ESL teacher at J.V. Washam. “He’s extremely punctual and focused. He’s attentive to every student in his little group.”

In March, Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain awarded him the Mayor’s Destination Success Award for his work and leadership in the program.

But it wasn’t long ago that Juan David (that’s “David” with the English pronunciation) was an ESL student himself.

He and his family moved to the United States from Venezuela in June 2010 as political refugees, said his mother, Iliana Loreto. Juan David is now in the process of getting his green card.

He didn’t know much English when he started in the third grade at J.V. Washam.

“It was scary,” he recalled of his first day at school. “When I came home, I was half-crying with happiness, half-crying with sadness. I was happy because everyone was trying to hang out with me, but I was sad because they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.”

At recess, he said he’d give a thumbs-up to communicate. Iliana said she challenged her son to persevere when he’d come home upset.

“It’s not easy when your kid comes home with a frown and says, ‘Mom, I don’t understand what they’re saying, I don’t want to go to school!’ ” she said. “ ‘You are going to work hard and start speaking English,’ I told him.”

Juan David picked up enough English to get by in a few weeks. He made the honor roll in the third grade that year and started reading books in English. Juan David also visited a supplementary website for ESL learners for a half-hour daily.

By halfway through the fourth grade, he said he was fully comfortable with the language and stopped his ESL classes.

Williamson, J.V. Washam’s ESL teacher, said each child’s progress in learning English varies, but that average national statistics estimate it takes 3 to 5 years for social language to be proficient and 5 to 7 for a solid academic-language understanding.

“He has a lot of the variables that would help him to progress at a really good pace,” she said of Juan David.

Some of those variables include personality, having English-speaking friends, motivation for learning and family motivation and support.

“I would just say his personality and motivation were factors that helped him perform language proficiency at a good pace,” Williamson said.

This past school year, she and Valerie Hackett, a principal intern at the school, decided to start the ESL Buddy program for extra support. Four buddies have met with 16 ESL students three days a week, for just 15 minutes each time, to strengthen English skills.

The children play hangman, sort words, spell pictures of things and learn spelling patterns and phonics, Williamson said.

She said she knew she could trust Juan David with the smallest students, a group of five kindergartners.

“The students love working with him, and that’s really important,” she said. “He’s very supportive with his words. He’s definitely a confidence-builder for those kids.”

Juan David said he has enjoyed helping the kindergartners. “It makes me happy every day. They are so cheerful,” he said. “I know how they feel when they don’t understand the language. I don’t want them not to have friends because they don’t speak the language.”

Though he seems to be a natural teacher, Juan David really wants to be a lawyer (either criminal or immigration) and the mayor of a North Carolina town or city.

His mother described him as responsible and earnest. “He says, ‘I have to get scholarships, I have to go to Harvard,’ and I say, ‘Relax, you have to get to high school.’ ”

Juan David will attend Bailey Middle next year, but right now, he’s excited about academic awards for the end of this school year. He said he had a great time at J.V. Washam: “Every day I came here, I started with a smile and ended with a smile – which makes me excited to come to school.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5204; On Twitter: @YoungAchCLT
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