“Hope” in a Different Language
Living the Esperanza experience
Cheryl Gerber photos
Two dozen kindergarten students studied on mini-sized laptops at Esperanza Charter School the school day before LEAP testing started in April, oblivious to the rigors of the testing to come.
They greeted visitors with the heart-melting smiles of the innocent and continued with their late afternoon treat of interacting with reading- and math-focused computer programs. As per state requirements, the education materials that typically decorate walls and bulletin boards in schoolrooms everywhere were hidden from view by heavy paper. Put up in advance of the next Monday’s testing, the paper prevents any accidental or intentional hints of answers for LEAP questions. The individual scores for all grades influence everything from teacher and principal job security to overall school survival.
Most of the children who played reading and math games at Esperanza that April day had more in common than high stakes testing. The majority of them are of Hispanic origin, some born in the United States, some recent immigrants from violent and poverty prone Central American countries. For its enrollment of 518, Esperanza has the large percentage of Hispanic elementary public school students in the city, at 67 percent, says Mickey Landry, executive director of the Choice Foundation, Esperanza’s charter operator.
Each year the school must jump the LEAP hurdle along with all public schools, an even tougher challenge for a school with a majority of non-native speakers. “Hope,” esperanza in English, is an apt name for a school that has spent its entire incarnation educating some of the least prepared students.
Frequently, new enrollees come to the classroom speaking no English. Some have never been inside a school. This school year, two students with no schooling, fourth and a fifth graders in age, showed up in August, says Nicole Saulny, head of school.
“They had never seen a pencil,” Saulny says.
For most, learning to speak English poses little problem, naturally hot-wired as children are for learning. With the help of seven English as a second language teachers, by spring of each academic year the youngest ones are conversing. By the next year, Saulny says, they can read English.
But writing – that’s a different story.
And with the introduction of tougher curriculum standards that focus on writing skills, LEAP tests are double trouble for non-native speakers. Even math requires writing skills.
“It’s very difficult to take non-native speakers,” Saulny says, “and have them do well on a test.”
The state gives a school a year to work with such students before their LEAP scores are counted toward School Performance Scores, Saulny says. But an extra year isn’t enough time to prepare them for the tests, which are aligned with Common Core standards. She says it takes five to seven years to become fluent with new tests.
In 2014, when Central American violence and crop failure sent unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States, New Orleans experienced a large influx of immigrant children.
Federal law requires public schools to take all children without question. As a result, the Hispanic enrollment at Esperanza, already well known in the city’s Latino population, increased.
Now the Hispanic enrollment is 37 percent higher than 2010, when the school’s charter was reassigned to the Choice Foundation, Landry says. At the time of the turnover the school was “failing” by state standards, and its 30 percent Hispanic enrollment scared off any competition to acquire its charter, he says.
Landry and his team proved up to the challenge. Esperanza was the Choice Foundation’s first “turnaround” school. Despite the language barriers, by 2013-’14, the once “failing” school had earned a B letter grade, Louisiana Department of Education figures show.
Then the immigrant wave hit. By 2014-’15, the school’s state grade fell to a C, considered average, but not bad considering the situation. Not only did the school have more non-native speakers, it was the first year schools were measured on tougher standards for each grade level.
Students who don’t speak English when they enroll are assigned to the “newcomer” classroom, which is taught by Margarita Rueb, a bilingual teacher whose father immigrated to the United States from Chile.
On Earth Day, April 22, Rueb taught the newcomers a lesson on the effects of pollution. The lesson included learning new vocabulary words such as environment, pollution and harm. Rueb wrote the English words on the board with the Spanish translation underneath them.
Many teachers and staff have backgrounds that have prepared them to meet the difficulties that immigrant children face. The school’s social worker Annette Allison, for example, grew up in South Texas, close to the Mexican border.
Now she counsels immigrant children, many of whom are working out cultural and relationship adjustment issues. Often they’re adjusting to a parent who has been absent in their lives for years. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress stemming from events that happened during their transit from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“Some bad things happened to them,” Allison says.
One child refused to eat Goldfish, a snack Allison says she often hands out to her charges, because it was a reminder of a holding facility that had distributed the same snack.
“There are these little triggers that take them back to that moment when they were alone and abandoned,” she says.
Allison counsels the parents as well as the children to help work out such traumas. She also holds group sessions with children with similar problems. Because they feel safe at school, many dread summer and regular holidays, she says.
“I think our kids feel really loved,” Allison says. “We treat them like our own.”