Learning English, building confidence

Exsenhawer Tobon Galeano can't stop giggling.

A joke that doesn't make sense, the sound of a certain word, a glance at a friend – the slightest thing cracks him up.

Perhaps it's because this particular Monday is the last of the school year. By the time this story prints, Exsenhawer and his seven classmates at the “Newcomer Center” will be out for the summer.

For these students, Friday marked a milestone: the end of their first school year in this country. In Gaston County schools, most elementary and middle school students who've come to the United States within the past year with little or no English are placed in the “Newcomer Center” program at Gardner Park Elementary.

There, the students spend the majority of their day together, studying math, science and social studies curriculums that have been modified to help them understand. They take buses to their assigned schools for the last couple of hours before the final bell rings.

This year, the students in Ryan Teague's sixth- to eighth-grade group all happened to come from Latin American countries.

Even after months of English training, Spanish is still a classroom mainstay. Mr.Teague gives directions in both languages and has the students translate vocabulary. They seem to understand more and respond in English when prompted. But they continue to chatter with one another in Spanish, and their sentences often come out in a jumble of both languages.

“Taller is el grande. No, el más grande,” one student says.

“No, tallest es el más grande,” another argues.

Mr. Teague directs the students to an exercise in their workbooks.

“Leen aquí los instrucciones, read the instructions,” Exsenhawer, 12, begins scribbling in his notebook.

“Ham-bur-ger…con ‘h,'” he thinks out loud.

A boy leans over Exsenhawer's arm to glance at his paper. Both begin to laugh.

“Oh, te falta mucho,” Exsenhawer says, taking the boy's paper and helping him fill in the blank spaces.

A boy on Exsenhawer's other side gestures for his attention.

“Así, así?” he asks, pointing at his paper.

Another round of giggles.

Mr. Teague begins a bingo game. He calls off the first vocabulary word of the round.

“Bingo!” a boy immediately shouts from the back. Even Mr. Teague can't help laughing now.

The students don't seem antsy for summer. They're just having fun.

Teaching assistant Sonia Wiley said that's probably because they haven't been worn out from studying for stressful state standardized exams. English as a Second Language students in their first year in the country are only required to test in math, but those scores don't count toward school rankings.

Mr. Teague said it's challenging to teach ESL students because some come with an academic framework in their native language while others have never gone to school. But all have made progress during the year, he said.

It's easy to see how Exsenhawer has grown – and not just in his English. The Colombia native was quiet and reserved after he arrived in February. But he became engaged in class as he gained confidence with the language, Mrs. Wiley said. After a few weeks, he was helping other students, volunteering to answer questions and earning high grades.

He's quiet, though, as he travels to W.P. Grier Middle for the end of his sixth-grade day.

It's hard to talk to the non-ESL students, he said; they speak quickly and use so many expressions. He sits silently in art.

Those with less than a year at the center can return in the fall; others will go to their assigned schools. One period will be ESL, but the rest will be regular classes.

That's a daunting thought for some of Exsenhawer's classmates. “I'm still scared to speak,” said Byron, who will start seventh grade in the fall.