By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Nola D'Angelo was born to teach.
But before that, she was born in Canada to Italian parents who left their native country for a shot at a better life. From an early age D'Angelo spoke Italian at home while learning enough English and French to understand her new culture. Then, she had to master her new languages in order to excel.
Today, D'Angelo is one of five English Speakers of Other Languages teachers for the Derry school district. To say that she empathizes with her students is an understatement.
“As immigrants, my parents were never home because they were working, so I was alone a lot. I was quiet and shy. I felt like I lacked power. I didn't feel the same as everyone else. I knew I was different and I was embarrassed by it,” D'Angelo said. “We didn't have a program like this. There wasn't anyone who knew what I was going through.”
What makes Derry particularly fortunate, says district Supplemental Services Director Serena Levine, is that D'Angelo is not the exception: four of the district's five ESOL teachers actually learned English as a second language.
“In this district we see a lot of children who speak English but come from families that don't,” said teacher Deborah Olford, who came to this country with her family from Portugal at age 14. “When I arrived, no one understood me – it's hard enough being 14.”
In the past decade, the district's ESOL department has grown from one teacher to five to accommodate the 80-plus students who have come from other countries, or are first-generation American.
Levine said the most recent survey of foreign languages spoken in district households topped 20 – from Amharic and Konkani to Tagalog and Vietnamese. Situations vary – some students come with minimal English; others have good social language skills, but fail to meet the required state proficiency test, given annually to ESOL students. And there are those children who are adopted by American families from foreign countries, thrust into a completely different culture with no translator.
In all cases, the ESOL teachers double as unofficial social workers, picking up on subtleties that might otherwise be missed by another teacher.
One adjustment made at the middle school level has been to create an ESOL class as part of Unified Arts rotation, said Soojin Stickney, who who teaches about a dozen students at Gilbert H. Hood, the district's secondary magnet school for ESOL students.
“Adjusting their schedules and taking them out of class two or three times a week was difficult for the kids and for the teachers,” said Stickney, who came to the U.S. from Korea as an adult, after serving in the Peace Corps.
Beyond reassuring students and making sure they are learning, ESOL teachers try to bridge the communication gaps with regular classroom teachers. Despite being among the top-10 districts in the state for its number of ESOL students, Derry is still considered a “low incidence” district, which means not all teachers will have ESOL students every year.
Sandra Reyes, an aide in the elementary schools, identifies with many of her students who leave their English at the door when they return home after school.
“When we came here from Guatemala, we were only allowed to speak Spanish. My parents didn't want us to lose our language,” said Reyes.
Carol Murphy is the token non-immigrant of the bunch. Her background is actually in special education – she made the switch to ESOL after being intrigued by the way one of her Spanish-speaking students was struggling to learn.
“It occurred to me that not all kids learn the same way, whether they are regular ed or special ed. In many ways, special ed students are coming from a different culture too – to me, that simply means having to learn in a different way,” Murphy said.
The five teachers share a common perspective as children of immigrants. For example, they know kids coming from other cultures are often expected to do things at home that “typical American kids” aren't asked to do.
“I used to write my own notes for school if I was absent or late. And you grow up faster – when I was 10 my older sister left home, so at age 9 I had to learn how to do income taxes for my parents,” D'Angelo said.
“I've had many students who are expected to stay home if a parent has a doctor's appointment, so they can go with them and help translate,” said Stickney.
Although students learn at their own pace, the goal is to get them out of ESOL and into the mainstream as quickly as possible.
D'Angelo recalled an encounter she had with one of her foreign-born students, who had scored as well on a proficiency test as two students who were born here.
“He said his teacher praised him for doing so well, saying that he was her hero. Later on, that student sat down next to me and told me the story. Then he looked me in the eye and said, 'Know what? To me, you're the hero.' I get a little choked up just telling the story,” D'Angelo said. “But that is why I love this job; it's why I do what I do.”