Program helps students new to U.S. adjust to English

Fircrest Elementary School's Newcomers Program serves Evergreen Public Schools, one of the most linguistically diverse districts in the state

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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Fircrest Given Learning Award

The Fircrest Elementary School Newcomers Program recently received the Imagine Learning Beacon School Award, the district announced late last month. Imagine Learning is a curriculum provider that creates language, literacy and math applications for students to use in class. Evergreen Public Schools officials say this is the first time the award has been granted to a program rather than to an entire school.

“Our program is one of only a few schools in the state that will receive this award,” said Catherine Carrison, Evergreen’s English-language learning manager, in an email to staff. “You have earned this honor because of your diligent efforts to implement and use Imagine Learning with students and for the great gains your students have made using this wonderful resource.”

In her Fircrest Elementary School classroom, 7-year-old Yana Koroteyev is buried in books.

Her favorite, she says, pulling one from the stack on her desk, is “Elephant and Piggie,” a book series by Mo Willems. She flips quickly through an edition of the animal friends’ adventures, reading aloud as Elephant and Piggie prepare for a party.

“Party! Party! Party! Party!” she reads, running her fingers across the words on the page, giggling at the dancing animals.

Yana’s reading represents major growth for the second-grader. Yana’s family is from Russia, and they’ve been in the United States for only nine months. But Yana and about 19 other students from across the globe are enrolled in Fircrest Elementary School’s Newcomers Program, two English-language-learning classes designed for children who are new to the country.

Evergreen Public Schools is among the most linguistically diverse districts in the state. In the 2015-2016 school year, Evergreen Public Schools students spoke 70 different languages other than English, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Its top five languages are Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and Rumanian. Vancouver Public Schools that year had similar linguistic diversity, with 70 different languages spoken and Spanish, Russian, Chuuk, Ukrainian and Vietnamese taking the top five spots at the district.

When new families enter the Evergreen district, their elementary-aged children are bused to Fircrest for the newcomers class. Students stay in the program for up to a calendar year in either a class for first through third grades or for third through fifth grades, then return to their home campus.

The class can be a soft landing for students whose previous education experience has only been in their home country, or for those who come in with limited formal schooling, like students who were refugees. Yana spoke very little English when she started school, she said. Now, she loves reading books.

“I had the words ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ little words,” she said. “We’re only speaking Russian.”

Catherine Carrison, the district’s manager of English language learning, said teachers have to work to create an environment where students feel safe.

“It’s really a great place to be because they’re there and they’re so precious and they want to learn and they want to try to use the language,” Carrison said. “The teachers have created environments where kids feel safe. It’s precious to see how hard they’re working.”

Shelley Thomas, who teaches the group in first through third grades, spent the past five years teaching in international schools in Saudi Arabia and China, so she knows what it’s like to be the new one in the class.

“I understand what it’s like being in a new culture, and the power of learning a new language,” she said.

In addition to teaching her students a new language, she’s also responsible for teaching them how to navigate school in an unfamiliar environment and how to adapt to a new culture. Math and science lessons are rooted in vocabulary, as well.

With exaggerated facial expressions and movements — that helps enforce the vocabulary, she said — Thomas guided a circle of students Tuesday through asking each other how they’re feeling and why they’re feeling that way. Some are more confident speaking in front of the group and sharing their feelings, while others, typically newer to the country, are more shy.

“There’s a socializing piece and a culture piece, as well,” she said.

Kelly Gasparach, who teaches a class for third through fifth grades, has the added challenge of teaching her students more complicated subject matter in addition to English. On Tuesday, her students worked together to complete a math worksheet and explain to their classmates how they found their answers.

“It’s very exciting, especially when they’re using the academic language,” Gasparach said.

Sofiia Bogdanova was in Gasparach’s class last year. She’s now a fifth-grader at Fircrest Elementary School. Her family moved from Ukraine about two years ago, a scary transition for the now 10-year-old girl.

But Sofiia said being in the class helped her make friends, understand math and even teach her parents, who don’t speak English.

“It was a big help for me,” she said. “I can help my parents learn a little bit to talk to others.”

Carrison noted that students may not necessarily return to their home schools fully fluent in English. That comes with time. But they return ready to learn and unafraid to take risks with their new language.

“These kids are warriors,” Carrison said. “They’re in this new spot, they go to this new classroom, and they get all geared up and armored up and go back to their neighborhood school.”