Helping English language learners find academic success - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Helping English language learners find academic success

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It's been a long journey for Tawusi Tarinabitu who arrived in Burlington from Burundi with her children in June, but now that she's finally made it to Vermont, her primary focus is on her sons getting an education.

"Being in here, with the kids now going to school, it's an opportunity. An incredible opportunity because they lived in refugee camps. Yes, they went to school, but the school was not as good as the one here," Tarinabitu said through a translator.

Tarinabitu fled the Congo for Burundi more than a decade ago. Her children Bonfils, Nilabwe, Janvier and Deluxe are all back to school this week, which can be tough for any student, but imagine how hard it is when you don't understand what anyone is saying. Just ask 8-year-old Isra Aden, who moved to Vermont from a refugee camp in Djibouti two years ago.

"I thought people were going to speak Somali and I got frustrated that they speak English," the third-grader said.

About 500 students are English language learners in Burlington schools. In 2003, they made up 8.2 percent of the population. But fast forward more than 10 years later and that number has climbed to 13.6 percent. Since 1980, the year Vermont became an official refugee resettlement zone, families have come to the state fleeing everything from civil war to sexual violence. The district started STEP-- Studying Toward English Proficiency-- eight years ago, with special separate classrooms to meet the specific needs of these children.

"In the past, we would just put the kids in the grade level according to their age. So we might have an 11-year-old come and put them in fifth grade. And you saw the little boy here... who was counting, I mean he can count to 10, but he's not ready to be in a fifth-grade classroom," said Lynda Siegel, a teacher for English language learners.

Among the students, there is an eagerness to learn everything about their new world.

"When there is the need to learn English, they find those words. They learn those words,” said Mary Neudecker, an ELL teacher. "They want to talk to their friends. They want to understand their teacher."

"I love to speak English," said Alhasan Al Dulaimi, a first-grader. "My heart doesn't like to speak Arabic. I'm Arabic because I don't like to speak Arabic because my heart doesn't like Arabic."

Reporter Eva McKend: Is there ever a concern that when you are teaching these young people English that at the same time you aren't contributing to an erasure of their culture and their language and all that they stand to contribute to Vermont?

Miriam Ehtesham-Cating/ELL Director: Language and culture and identity are all woven in together, and so we never want to suggest explicitly or even implicitly that the best path to English is to eliminate the other language or the best path to becoming culturally competent and comfortable in American society is to remove or decrease your connection with your original culture.

The multilingual liaisons like Alina Mukiza aid in that cultural preservation.

"I want my children to be doctors, to be engineers, even a teacher is fine," Tawusi said, with Mukiza translating for her. "Wherever they will be, I will it appreciate my almighty God."

A mother who's not worried about what her children have to lose, but instead all they have to gain as new Americans.

According to the USCRI/Vermont Refugee Resettlement program, more than 300 refugees have been resettled in Vermont in the past year alone.

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