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How Rockford Public Schools helps new migrant students & why some bilingual teachers say there's not enough support

One of the RPS 205 newcomer high school students, Banga.
One of the RPS 205 newcomer high school students, Banga.

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The auditorium at East High School in Rockford is packed with students presenting science projects. They’re all new to the district — in fact, they’re new to America. They’re from countries across the globe: Iraq, Syria, and Uganda -- and that’s not even counting students from Spanish-speaking countries like Venezuela, who go to Jefferson High School.

Many of them have been in the U.S. and Rockford for less than six months. Some arrived much more recently.

“Carbon atoms have six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons,” said one student from Tanzania during their presentation. He has only been in Rockford for less than a month. The student and his peers have been working on their “my favorite molecule” project for a few weeks. They show off detailed PowerPoints about the types of bonds the molecule is made of and where it’s commonly found.

There are 58 high school-aged newcomers in the district and dozens more in the middle and elementary schools.

Susan Griffeth teaches them science and math at East High School. She was just hired this year because of the increase in newcomers, and they’re close to needing to hire another.

She says a lot of her students are coming into her classroom with trauma -- many of them have even been in refugee camps.

“It's not easy. I mean, I got four new kids this week. I've got new kids coming next week. And they know zero English when they walk in the door and I'm teaching them chemistry,” she said. “But it's extremely rewarding. I'm exhausted every single day. But I love it every minute.”

Some arrived with very little prior education. Griffeth sees how hard her students work to catch up and get ahead.

“I assigned all fourth grade -- a math teacher helped me -- it was 460 assignments. They did it in two weeks,” said Griffeth. “Regina, she spent 11,000 minutes on the Khan Academy [online learning platform] since mid-September because she's going to do it.”

Dr. Misael Nascimento is the Executive Director of the Bilingual & Multicultural Department at RPS.

“Let's say they come as a junior in high school. There's not enough time to teach them English. And it's not enough time to teach them content. So, we run out of time,” said Nascimento. “The probability of someone like that graduating is very small.”

He says they need more subject-area teachers for these kids who can help with both language and academic support. Nascimento also says the district is planning a newcomer center which would be a hub for these students and their families, connecting them with community resources.

Students aren’t in newcomer programs forever. If students come in with no prior education, they could stay in the program for as long as 5 years before transitioning into English as a Second Language (ESL) and general education classes.

There is no newcomer program at the elementary school level. Students are scattered across the district's many elementary schools. They receive 30 minutes per day of direct ESL instruction.

Maria Altamirano is a bilingual teacher at Washington Elementary. She gave public comment at a Rockford school board meeting expressing her frustration over a lack of support from the district.

“As a bilingual teacher, when we get newcomers, we are not even notified that they're coming," she said at the meeting. "But yet we're expected to serve them as much as we can."

Altamirano says they spend a lot of time translating assignments and assessments into the students’ native language. She also echoed the need for more mental health support for her kids -- some of whom have been separated from their families or had parents killed.

“A lot of them as I'm teaching in English, this new curriculum that we have, all they can do is sit there and just stare," she said, "and it hurts me because I want to serve them and I want to help them as much as I can, but I don't have those resources that I believe I should get from the bilingual Department."

Eric Archer is a social studies teacher and curriculum leader at RESA Middle School. He says that their bilingual program is overloaded with students, beyond state guidelines.

Archer says there are more students who need bilingual services than classroom placements available. That means students who can’t read or write English sometimes end up in his general education social studies classes.

“I got a new student last week who doesn't speak a word of English," he said. "And I've got to try to figure out how to teach that student American history."

How does that work?

“Google Translate for some of it. Thankfully, some students around are able to translate. There's a couple of people in the building I can send them to for extra help, but it's not an ideal situation,” said Archer. “I can't even imagine what that would feel like as a new student. here, you're dropped into my classroom with 32 other kids, and you don't have any idea what's going on.”

Nascimento says he was not aware of this problem and that it’s not an issue throughout the whole district. He said he would follow up with the building principal.

In the meantime, back at East High School, Susan Griffeth is trying to build her newcomer students’ academic language and help them feel comfortable in their new home.

“We took them to the art museum, they've never been," she said. "It's learning about our community, our state, and our country. That's our social studies unit. Yesterday, we took them bowling. I have hilarious videos."

They visited a farm and got to meet miniature horses. There are also very practical trips like going to meet the mayor, going to a restaurant to practice ordering food in English, or to Rock Valley College.

“There's three of us [teachers]," said Griffeth, "and we will do whatever it takes to make their lives better and help them learn."

Because even though the system isn’t perfect, and even though they don’t always have the most resources -- their students still need them.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.