By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Hugo Jasbon is a typical 13-year-old suffering through the final days of 7th grade. This particular day he is taking turns reading aloud with his two classmates from a book called “Al Capone Does My Shirts.”
Teacher Soojin Stickney takes a break from the book's narrative to allow her students to field some questions about what it's like for them in ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages.
“Can I be honest? It makes no sense,” said Hugo, who was born in the United States to parents who came here from Colombia. "I don't feel like I need to be here anymore, but I have to come. It's stupid."
Stickney said fielding frustration is part of her job -- and an important part of the process for these students, who are "advanced." They fall into the largest category of the district's ESOL students – LEP, for Limited English Proficiency, which means their conversational English is excellent, but their academic reading and writing skills fall below the state standards set by No Child Left Behind.
Despite controversy over the federal act that requires standardized testing and progress as a funding tool, NCLB has truly improved education for students for whom English is not their primary language, said Diane Johnson, Director of Literacy for the Salem School District. She said the district's current population of 116 ESOL students has increased “tremendously” over the past few years.
“What's also heightened is our awareness of their needs. No Child Left Behind makes us more accountable,” said Johnson, “which is a good thing.”
The focus of the state's ESOL program is to help students meet and exceed those standards, a task which requires a dedicated staff and continued monitoring, even after the students have been mainstreamed.
Stickney fields all kinds of academic and social challenges with her students, from reading, science and math vocabulary, to the typical teenage angst that can sometimes be complicated by language barriers. Feeling like they are ready to fly solo without supplemental ESOL sessions is more common among middleschoolers, said Stickney.
“Deep down they know why they are here, but it's a tough time to be 'different' on any level. They work hard, and they can see their progress. As a teacher, you just have to know how to handle it,” Stickney said.
The statewide ESOL student population continues to expand and fluctuate, beyond urban settings, in unexpected small-town pockets. It's a constant ebb and flow of new students coming into districts and testing out of the program, once they achieve proficiency. It's a process as individual as the students, but generally one that moves in stages, said Serena Levine, Derry school district's director of special services.
“Especially for students coming in with limited or no English, it's gradual and predictable,” Levine said, beginning with a “silent period” which develops into interaction and then degrees of fluency.
“You'd be surprised how quickly some students can begin to master social language,” Levine said. “The goal of every ESOL teacher is to get the students out of the program as quickly as we can. You might think we'd be working ourselves out of a job, but there's no risk of that. We have new families coming into Derry all the time.”
The current count of students receiving ESOL services in New Hampshire schools was 4,700 and growing, as of February – up 300 from September, says Sue Stepick, who oversees the state's Title III program, which funds ESOL services.
“Each year over the past several years, the numbers have been increasing by 200-300,” Stepick said.
Derry ranks 9th among the state's top 10 districts for ESOL instruction. After the big three – Manchester, Nashua and Concord – the list in descending order includes Dover, Salem, Laconia Lebanon, Hudson, Derry and Somersworth. Rankings in the lower tier flip-flop based on waves of incoming students. However, those 10 districts account for about 80 percent of the state's ESOL population, according to Stepick.
“Since we have so many small districts, they're often looking for guidance when they receive families that don't speak English. They need to be prepared, especially in a time of diminishing budgets, and they need to provide that instruction from qualified ESOL teachers,” Stepick said.
Derry currently has about 84 students in K-8, and another 15 at the high school level receiving services, from five teachers – three full time and two aids. Pinkerton's program is administered separately by its foreign language teachers.
Karen Goyette, ESOL Program Director for Hudson district said their numbers – 80 in ESOL and 26 who have moved on but are still monitored – reflect the fact that it's a border town to Nashua and Massachusetts.
“People who come here from other countries obviously go where they have family or friends. They look to Hudson because they may be interested in a smaller school system,” said Goyette, who came to Hudson a year ago from Salem.
“The economy is a factor – we tracked our numbers for the past 10 years, and find fluctuations in our ESOL as the economy goes up and down,” Goyette said.
She also predicts that the numbers, statewide, will get a boost as neighboring Massachusetts lawmakers push for more scrutiny of immigration practices and a crackdown on services to those living here illegally.
“I would expect that to affect New Hampshire's numbers, based on what's happening there,” Goyette said.
She said New Hampshire's ESOL program works hard at coordinating its efforts, including an upcoming ESOL networking event June 8 at New Hampshire Technical Institute, where teachers and aids working in the south central part of the state can come together for a meeting of the minds.
“It's open to the public and will include a student-made film about what it's like to be an immigrant here,” said Goyette. “And there will be snacks. People should come out and find out more about what's happening in the schools.”