Students learn English as second language

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 25, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Isai Bethancourt cried his way through the beginning of kindergarten at West Primary School.

The tears lasted three weeks, far longer than the normal time-to-leave-mama-blues do for most children.

But most children understand what&8217;s going on around them. They are comforted by the teacher&8217;s words. They can talk to classmates on the playground. And the letter sounds that make up so much of kindergarten learning aren&8217;t foreign to them.

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Isai didn&8217;t, wasn&8217;t, couldn&8217;t and the letters were.

Not only was it the 5-year-old&8217;s first time away from his mom, it was his first lengthy exposure to the English language, his first time without Spanish.

A little more than a month into the school year and it&8217;s a whole new world.

He still speaks a lot of Spanish in the classroom, but now there&8217;s English mixed in. Though he&8217;s struggling with his colors, he can write his name. And, most important, the tears turned into smiles.

&8220;At this age they pick it up so quickly,&8221; said Shannon Rojo, Isai&8217;s English as a second language tutor. &8220;This is the age where they soak it up.&8221;

But Rojo is still there to do a little hand-holding. A full-time employee of the Natchez-Adams School District, Rojo is working with six ESL students this year. Five are Hispanic; one is from Liberia.

Rojo&8217;s second language is Spanish &8212; something she picked up when she married her Hispanic husband &8212; but being an ESL tutor doesn&8217;t mean knowing the language, she said.

&8220;I try to speak mostly English to them,&8221; she said. &8220;With the little bitty ones some answers they&8217;ll give in English and some in Spanish.&8221;

So it helps to know what they are saying, Rojo said.

Isai is one of two Spanish-speaking children in Kim Godfrey&8217;s kindergarten class at West. Erika Mireles is always close by, getting help from Rojo when needed. But Erika has a leg up, Rojo said, she has older siblings at home who speak mostly English. Sometimes, Erika helps Isai, Godfrey said.

Both children are from Mexico. Isai&8217;s dad works at La Fiesta Grande restaurant and Erika&8217;s father works in fencing.

Rojo spends about four and a half hours, three days a week at West with Isai and Erika. Because they are younger, they get more of her time.

The students stay with their class and do the same assignments, only with Rojo close by to lend a hand.

Their classroom teacher knows no Spanish &8212; though she&8217;s learning &8212; and depends on Rojo to handle nearly all the communication with parents.

Rojo spends her planning times each day translating homework into Spanish for the younger children, so parents can help, and translating letters home for the older children.

Once in the ESL program, students must receive tutoring for two years, but as they progress they can test out of the program. Some students test out as early as third-grade.

The district is required by state regulation to offer ESL tutoring. The position is funded through Title I dollars.

Rojo has been on the job for four years, and she created the program as it is, she said.

&8220;I was just aware that there were a lot (of non-English speaking students) here in the district,&8221; she said.

Rojo was at home with her own children &8212; who speak Spanish &8212; before she went to work for the district.

For the classroom teacher, Rojo becomes another set of hands. Her main focus is on the ESL students, but the others know her. And the other students learn some Spanish along the way too.

&8220;Every once in a while the other students ask things,&8221; Rojo said. &8220;The other kids are so intrigued.&8221;

And so is the regular teacher.

&8220;I was so excited when I found out I&8217;d have (Isai and Erika),&8221; Godfrey said.

&8220;The first week there was hand gesturing until we figured each other out. In 22 years, this is my first to get Spanish-speaking students. It just gives me a new challenge and something else for me to start learning.&8221;