Summer school class helps students and parents improve their English skills

Smyrna Ghalley, Anna Hensley, Natalie Dicello and Shimran Subba read together at Lansdowne Elementary this month at an ESL summer program.
Smyrna Ghalley, Anna Hensley, Natalie Dicello and Shimran Subba read together at Lansdowne Elementary this month at an ESL summer program. Herald-Leader

"Vampires!" "Vampires?" "Vampiros!"

Excited whispers flew around the classroom when Karen Botts, a teacher at Lansdowne Elementary School, distributed books she had selected for the students in her English as a Second Language summer-school class.

Yeylin Sanchez rushed from her seat to claim Bunnicula, a book about a vampire bunny who sucks the juice out of vegetables. Botts knows that scary books are Yeylin's favorite.

The faces around the classroom represent a wide range of cultures and ages. The students, ages 5 to 11, come from nine countries and speak seven languages.

"All of our instruction takes place in English. You just start small and build," Botts explained. "We see dramatic improvement throughout the summer."

The ESL program, which is kind of a mix between school and summer camp, is the only summer learning program offered by Lansdowne. The goal is to help students be more fluent in English when school opens in the fall. The program has been offered for six summers, Botts said.

"It's difficult to embed this kind of conversational time throughout normal school days," she said.

This summer, Maddie Fish, a senior at Henry Clay High School and the daughter of Lansdowne's principal, Jennifer Fish, organized a group of her school friends to volunteer with the ESL program.

Maddie and 12 other students from Henry Clay spend time reading and playing with the children.

"It just seemed like it would be really fun. The kids really love having us here and they are all so cute," she said. "It's not just about academics. It's a way for us and them to build relationships and make friends."

The four-week camp, which ended this week, lasted from 8 a.m. to noon. The students received a free breakfast and then spent time reading, playing games and using educational computer programs. They also enjoyed playing kickball, creating art projects and trying science experiments.

About half of the children in the class of 35 to 45 have refugee status. They come from Iraq, Congo, Nepal and elsewhere.

Jennifer Sanchez, 10, was born in the United States, but her parents are from El Salvador and Honduras.

"My dad keeps on telling me it's safer for me here," Jennifer said. "But when I first went to a different school, I didn't understand any English. I felt scared and it was hard to fit in."

Even with the language barrier, Botts said, the international students excel in the classroom.

"They have a drive and desire to learn that's stronger than a lot of our other students," she said. "They value the education and they see it as a privilege, not a job."

It can be a difficult for immigrant students to learn English because many of their families don't speak any English at home. Affi Adjoyi, 8, was born in Togo. She was unhappy when she began to forget her native language, she said.

"I sometimes mixed English in with my other language, and my dad would say, 'What are you saying?' " she said. "My parents helped me learn back my other language, and I help them learn English."

Along with working with the students to adjust to life in the United States, Lansdowne offers the parents learning nights with interpreters. They also translate all of the school's information sheets into several languages and use home visits to get to know the international families better.

The school recently hosted a multicultural night where parents prepared dishes from their native countries and were given the opportunity to record their immigration stories for the school's website.

"I think our diversity is amazing for our English-speaking students because this is what real life looks like," said Fish, the principal. "It helps us and the students learn that we're all more similar than we are different."