Cambridge International Students Benefit from Language Support Programs

Written by Chenchen Zhao

Chenchen Zhao
BU News Service

As the only public high school in Cambridge, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) is home to students from 34 countries, speaking 25 languages, according to data from the school.

“I’m always amazed when I think about that these young people [who] just move to another country, to another school system, and speaking another language,” said Vera Duarte, the Teacher in Charge of the English Language Learners (ELLs) Department at Rindge and Latin.

Duarte said that the situation for international students varies from person to person, depending on the country of origin, their socioeconomic status, and their academic backgrounds. Every student has different needs.

“When people think about international students, sometimes they tend to think of them as like a homogeneous group. And international students are like a heterogeneous group,” Duarte said.

To accommodate this complex student group that is expanding each year, Massachusetts Law requires Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) programs to all public schools. SEI helps develop language and literacy skills for non-English speaking students. At Rindge and Latin, they will receive support in math, science, and social studies with SEI instructors who are fluent in Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages.

While the SEI courses focus on academics, the school also provides ESL (English as Second Language) courses. When international students first come to the U.S., they go to the Family Resource Center for English language placement tests, and then take language courses appropriate to their level of English. If their English is at a higher level, they may be involved in AP classes or honors classes, according to Duarte.

Within a limited amount of time, these international students not only need to enhance their language proficiency, but also need to take academic classes and pass Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests in order to graduate. Duarte said the combination of English language courses and academic courses taught by bilingual instructors are helpful for them.

“In the four years, you have to fulfill all the requirements towards graduation,” she said.

However, even with the SEI and ESL programs, educators began to see another need developing. Students from countries such as Haiti and El Salvador, or other places that are unstable often arrive in Cambridge with limited literacy in their native languages, and have experienced zero to little formal education in the country of origin. Five years ago, this new group, called Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE), began arriving in the Cambridge schools.

Currently, there are 15 students without formal education in the school, and Duarte said that the number is increasing.

Duarte is concerned that students with such backgrounds may only have elementary level knowledge but they are already teenagers; they cannot attend lower level schools because of their ages. Plus, many of the students have to go straight to work after school in order to support their families or go back home to take care of their siblings.

“We try to support them as much as we can,” Duarte said. “For those students who sometimes find studying or doing homework a problem, I encourage them them to stay around school for an hour to finish their homework, and we set them up with a tutor.”

In addition, a subprogram under the English Language Learners department called High Intensity Language Training(HILT), is designed specially for them.

Serge (one of several students we spoke with whose last name the school asked us not to publish), 18, from Haiti and a senior at Rindge and Latin, said he grew from the program and is now very confident in his academics.

“I feel good studying here and meeting new people and doing activities,” Serge said.

Compared to education in his home country, which places over 40 students into one classroom and lectures at the students, “the teachers [here] are patient,” Serge said. “They wait for you if you have questions after school or after class.”

Serge has been in the U.S. for three years. Although he has not started college applications, he knows that the education here can lead to a better future for him.

Like Serge, many Asian students, who make up the majority population of international students at CRLS, came to the U.S. for the same reason. Vivian, 14, from Taiwan, is one of them.

“I like [it] here because I can have more advanced education than in Taiwan,” Vivian said.

Her personality has changed a lot through the program as well. Vivian is more willing to make new friends with students from countries across the world, because the academic pressure here is much less compared to that in Taiwan.

However, four years ago when she first came to the country, she did not dare to step out of her comfort zone where she could speak her native language.

“It really depends on how comfortable they are with their English level, and their personalities play a huge, huge role,” Duarte said. “Students who are outgoing and are not afraid of making mistakes are more successful making friends outside their groups, because they are not worried about how other people are perceiving them.”

“Our school is a very welcoming school,” Asmaa, an American-born native English speaker who is in 10th grade at CRLS, said.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

Founded in 1648, Cambridge High School is the only public high school in Cambridge.

Except for the ESL and SEI classes, English Language Learners take art and gym classes with mainstream students. At the same time, the school also provides various opportunities such as clubs and sports for the ELLs to mingle with native speakers.

Lu, a Chinese student in 9th grade at Rindge and Latin, is actively participating in dancing club and the Ocean Project at school, according to Helen Feng. Feng works for Capstone Academy, a for-profit tutoring institution hired by Lu’s family.

There’s an increasing number of Chinese students like Lu who are willing to pay full tuition to study abroad before college. They come to the U.S. through institution such Capstone Academy, and they usually live with a local host family.

Feng is in charge of two students and she went to the parent-teacher conference for them last week.

“They are always number one in math, but a little bit weak in history,” Feng said.

But with the ELL programs, Duarte is confident that their students will succeed in the future. The record shows that 99 percent of the ELL seniors were eligible to graduate last year.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Duarte said. “They are able to catch up and fulfil all the graduation requirements like everyone else.”

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