Science teacher Eric Bookstrom showed off his toys during an open house at the ESL Newcomer Academy in early November. Sitting across the desk from Bookstrom was Arena Nyandebwa, the mother of one of his students. Bookstrom explained how he uses props to teach physics to non-English-speaking children. As he talked, academy interpreter Mukhtar Ahmed translated Bookstrom’s words into Swahili so Nyandebwa, a Congo native who has been in America only about five months, could understand. Minutes later, Ahmed provided the same service in Somalian for Aminagi Fahiye and Benedicto Ndayauroywa, two Somali parents who took turns talking with the instructor.
There are more than 30 languages represented at the ESL (English as a Second Language) Newcomer Academy, located on the third floor of Shawnee High School at 4018 W. Market St. The school classifies its students by language rather than country of origin because some nations contain several ethnic groups with different cultures and languages. Burma, for example, has eight major national ethnic groups: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine and Shan. This can make teaching complicated scientific concepts an adventure for Bookstrom.
The Jefferson County Public School system gives all new foreign-born students an English assessment test at its ESL Intake Center, located in Hazelwood Elementary, 1325 Bluegrass Ave. Middle- and high-school age students who receive low scores on the assessment test are referred to the ESL Newcomer Academy, which is an optional program. Upon entering the academy, the students complete another English language assessment that helps place them in the proper class level within the school. The school uses a cohort system so that students at similar levels of English spend their whole day together. This system also allows teachers in different subject areas to work together to address the specific needs of the cohorts they teach. The curriculum includes math, science, language arts, computer skills and social studies.
“I let the students play, and then we talk about the interaction,” Bookstrom explains. “I slowly try to bring scientific terms like ‘velocity’ into the conversation. I’m using science as a way to build up their English vocabulary. … The diversity of our student body actually works in my favor as a teacher. If I had just Spanish speakers, it would be natural for them to fall into their native language. Here, I can group together students who speak Spanish, Swahili, Somalian and Arabic. Then English becomes the only common way for them to communicate.”