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Crash Course in U.S. Culture

An intensive one-year program in Oxnard is one of dozens statewide helping to ease the transition for immigrant children.

October 27, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The lessons don't come easily in Anthony Garces-Foley's classroom at Elm Street School -- not for the students or the teacher.

Last week, a simple session on adverbs had Garces-Foley literally running circles around his south Oxnard classroom, urging students to describe his actions.

And it had the fifth- and sixth-grade students -- sons and daughters of recent immigrants -- scrambling for their Spanish-to-English dictionaries to find the right words to complete the assignment.

"How am I running now?" Garces-Foley asked, easing to a slow-motion trot. Pages flipped until the answer emerged.

"Slowly," 10-year-old Veronica Santiago offered.

"Yes, slowly," the teacher responded. "Very good."

Slowly but surely, the lessons unfold at the Newcomer Program offered by the Oxnard Elementary School District. Now in its third year, the effort is among dozens statewide dedicated to easing new arrivals into the classroom and the community at large, a safety valve aimed at helping immigrant students find their way in what can be a large and perplexing school system.

The Oxnard program takes about 150 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students each year from across the district who have been in the country less than 12 months and speak only Spanish.

The idea is to provide intensive English-language instruction and social acculturation for the new arrivals, most of whom come from Mexico and many of whom have never set foot in a classroom.

Most youngsters are placed in the program for a year and then transferred to their neighborhood schools.

The goal is to make students conversant in English by the end of the school year. But the program also serves a larger purpose, seeking to make the children feel at home in their new country while providing an education that goes beyond book-learning to instill such values as patriotism and civic responsibility.

"I see myself in a lot of these kids," said Garces-Foley, 31, who arrived in the United States from the Philippines at age 7, unable to speak English and forced into a school system unfriendly to new arrivals.

"Being an immigrant and newcomer myself, I know what they are going through," the teacher added. "But I tell them if I can make it, they can too."

There has been some debate nationwide about the merit of such programs.

Critics worry about the expense associated with the intensive instruction involved and contend that it can be counterproductive to isolate recent arrivals at a time when they should be working to blend into their new surroundings.

But Lorraine McDonnell, chairwoman of the political science department at UC Santa Barbara and a longtime observer of similar programs, said it has been her experience that such efforts ultimately pay dividends to new arrivals, not only academically but socially.

"It is not only about learning English. It's really about helping these students begin to adapt to a new country," said McDonnell, who has studied the programs as a Rand Corp. researcher and university professor. "When I studied them, I came away very impressed. These kids were getting the kind of education we probably wish all kids would get."

McDonnell said she found that newcomer programs often had lower student-teacher ratios than regular classrooms and that teachers usually volunteered to work in them, driven by a passion to see immigrant youngsters succeed.

That is clearly the case at Elm Street School. Several of the program's teachers were newcomers themselves or have parents who immigrated to the U.S.

Then there is veteran teacher Christi Davis, who, after 18 years in the Upland Unified School District, came to Oxnard last year in search of a job in just such a program.

Her goal, like others on the five-teacher newcomer staff, had long been to help youngsters learn to speak English. She now has more than 30 fifth- and sixth-grade students, most of whom speak, read and write little or no English.

"We tell them, 'This is your chance, if you don't work hard and get it now, there's a big world that awaits you and it's going to be rough,' " Davis said. "There is a high level of motivation among most of the students and their parents. To many of them, this program is like a gift."

While English-language instruction is integral to the program, it is not the only thing immigrant students are taught at the year-round school.

Second-year teacher Patty Zamora takes great pride in the way her students soak up lessons on U.S. culture and history, noting their enthusiasm for belting out such songs as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Oh! Susannah."

And fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Blanca Tizcareno -- once a newcomer herself, arriving in Oxnard at age 16 -- spent a good part of one morning last week instructing students how to find the mode and median of a set of numbers representing high temperatures for the month of October.

But many of the lessons come back to the idea that learning English is essential, even if they are as simple as taking attendance or counting the days on the calendar.

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