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At Northeast High School, cultural acceptance is the norm

Half the student body have been English learners at some point in their education.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As Amanda Fiegel reads out loud to her 12th-grade English class, she is a whirl of movement and gesture.

“The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features,” she reads.

The passage, from the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, is describing George.

At first, Fiegel stands upright and enunciates pointedly. Then she slouches and lumbers across the room.

“Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders.”

This is Lennie.

The students had just learned the word reluctant, and that word described their initial reaction to being handed this complex American novel.

But as Fiegel moved and acted and read aloud the opening pages, the group of English language learners at all levels of proficiency listened intently. After the first few pages, they were using their pencils to help guide them through the text.

“It’s literally the first week of school, and I don’t know them and they don’t really know me,” said Fiegel. The first few weeks are about learning who they are and what they need. Soon, they will start reading themselves and acting out the characters.

At Northeast High, the city’s largest school with 3,380 students, nearly one-fifth are in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program now and half have been English learners at some time in their academic career. The students speak 60 languages in all.

The part of the school year for getting to know each other is crucial. The students come from 91 countries; some of them have been in the United States for years, and others arrived the previous day.

Either way, there is a place for them at Northeast.

“What I love about Northeast is that … everyone is supportive and accepting of the kids,” said Fiegel. “First and foremost, you need to create a safe environment. … There are students who are refugees, who have crossed the border, or who are from Syria and are like deer in the headlights.

“Sometimes you first just have to be there for them and the language will come.”

Different cultures

With such a significant international population at Northeast, interacting with students from other countries in each class and on a daily basis is the norm.

“When I first moved here, I was bullied because I didn’t speak English,” said Anna Isakova, who came to the United States at age 10 from Russia and is now a senior. She finds Northeast to be more accepting.

“Having kids from all different countries makes you find out about different cultures,” she said. “You look at other people from other countries as normal people when they are in your classes.”

Clubs range from the Arab Arts Club to the Muslim Girls Club to the Students Run Philly Style running club popular with foreign students. Multicultural performances abound. Clubs for refugee students run by local resettlement agencies help them adjust and celebrate their home cultures.

“There is this huge acceptance here that is really special. There is a presence in valuing diversity,” said Fiegel. “I am really happy to be a part of a school like this.”

Philadelphia’s Great Northeast has become a destination in the city and the region for immigrants, and what has been happening in its largest high school reflects that.

In 2014-15, Northeast had 468 English learner (EL) students, who spoke 37 languages. In just two years, the number of ELs has grown to 650 and the number of languages they speak to 60, data show.

For at least a decade, Northeast High has been forced to address the question of how to educate a linguistically diverse student body.

There is “a huge range of language proficiency. That’s a big challenge,” said Pat Ryan, who was Northeast’s ESOL coordinator for 10 years and is now the District’s director of multilingual programs and curriculum.

As a result, this high school has innovated and adjusted, working to create a model culture and an ESOL program.

During Ryan’s tenure at Northeast, the school’s ESOL program changed dramatically in how students were organized into classes. When she first started, ESOL students were grouped by their scores on an English proficiency test (on a scale of 1-7, 1 being the lowest and 7 being the highest), regardless of age or grade. The groups and rosters were set, with very little room for movement or flexibility.

But language acquisition is anything but rigid.

So Ryan and her team set out to change the approach. They created a Small Learning Community for ESOL students called the Academic Language Program. It is one of seven Small Learning Communities, each of which functions as “a school within a school. ” All programming, faculty, rostering, and curriculum are self-contained and designed to most efficiently serve the needs of EL students.

High school needs differ

But their needs vary greatly. New arrivals who are high school age need different support and services than immigrant students who start at a U.S. school when they are younger.

The predominant practice in elementary schools, where ESOL teachers either “pull in” to help EL students within their regular classes or “push out” to give individuals or small groups help outside the classroom, doesn’t work well in high school, explained assistant principal Max Klink.

“High schools are credit-driven,” he said, with a wide variety of courses and the need for each student to accumulate the right credits and meet graduation requirements. “If they don’t have that opportunity to get the credit profile up, they’re shortchanged.”

It is daunting for high school students to meet all graduation requirements while simultaneously learning English.

When EL students come in to Northeast, they are tested for English proficiency, but what the school does with that data is different from what happens elsewhere. If students come in as a level 1 or 2, they have three periods of English and “sheltered content” classes (math, science and social studies) with other EL students who are at a similar level. The teachers of these content classes are certified in that subject area, but they have special training and often an ESOL certification as well.

“I try to use history to teach language,” said Timothy Rutecki, who teaches a sheltered history class for beginning ESOL students.

Each class is structured the same way so that students know what to expect. For instance, he touches his head when he instructs students to “think.” He reminds students to use whatever translation tools help them figure out his directions – it could be simply talking to each other or consulting their iPhones.

But the class is not over-simplified. This particular day, the students were learning about what it means to analyze a history text, how to be skeptical of primary sources, and how to discern sources of bias when studying the past.

“That’s what the content teachers need to do,” said Ryan, the director of multilingual programs. Teachers are trained to gradually move students toward greater understanding and more independence, “not to water it down, but to create the opportunities” for grasping the material.

Once a student reaches level 3 or higher in language proficiency, he or she is still enrolled in all sheltered content classes, but grouped by grade rather than ESOL level. Fiegel teaches different sections of 11th- and 12th-grade English, using a typical grade-specific curriculum tailored to her class’s level of proficiency with the English language.

“It’s just like another English class,” said Fiegel, but her teaching method “is different than how I would teach it to native English speakers.”

Once students have strong enough English skills to take classes with the general student population, they are pushed to do so.

Malika Giyasova, 16, who moved here from Uzbekistan four years ago, is taking a sheltered vocabulary English class with Fiegel in which her classmates are all higher-level ESOL students, while enrolled in honors geometry and other classes with native English-speakers.

“When I came here, I was 12 years old, and I didn’t know any English at all. Not even bathroom,” said Giyasova. “Ms. Fiegel said ‘you should try honors because you can.’ I was about to drop it, but she was like, ‘no, you have to try. …’ And she was right, actually. Not even two weeks and I changed my mind. You have to believe in yourself.”

For many of these students, subjects like math and science are more easily transferable across languages. It is all about finding the right fit and combination for each individual.

“You have to believe in them, and I know that sounds like a ‘duh’ moment, but I am going to push them,” said Fiegel.

It is always a delicate balance between pushing them and supporting them.

She described an incident with a “frightened, terrified” girl in her home room who had just arrived the day before.

Fiegel pulled her aside and told her in her native Spanish that “I know she was scared, but I was there to help her” and “no matter what, she could come to me.” She gave her a hug.

“You see a kid who is struggling, and you know … just what is needed. That is what the teachers are doing here.”

Melanie Bavaria is a freelance writer and videographer in Philadelphia.

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