School of Babel

Written by Amy Saunders Category: Valley News Issue: August 2015
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Another school year, another extraordinary linguistic challenge for teachers and administrators at Alhambra High School – the Valley’s United Nations of public schooling.

Some students don’t know the alphabet, numbers, days of the week. Some can’t read or write in any language.

They’re teenagers, but some girls are already married, while some boys are the only wage earners in their families. Until recently, some had never known life outside a refugee camp. For some, this month marks their first day of school – not just this year, but ever.


Welcome to Alhambra High School, where last school year, more than 220 students were “English language learners” – more than at any other high school in the Valley.

At most schools in Arizona and nationwide, the acronym ELL generally is applied to native Spanish speakers. But at Alhambra, a Phoenix Union High School District school of nearly 2,800 students, the definition of diversity is far more complex.

In recent years, a wave of international refugees have settled in the hardscrabble pocket of west Phoenix near Camelback Road and Grand Avenue, where Alhambra was founded in 1961. In those days, the high school catered to a predominantly white, middle-class student body. Today, Alhambra is about 80 percent Hispanic, with a robust enrollment of ELL students representing 52 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, and more than 44 languages. The students speak Spanish, French and Arabic, but also languages no Rosetta Stone program can translate: Chin, Dinka, Karen, Kunama, Sango.

The school’s impressive diversity presents a profound challenge for educators. Every student-body assembly at Alhambra amounts to a United Nations assembly – at least linguistically.

Simply learning to say “hello” in each language is daunting, let alone creating productive scholastic programs tailored for 44 different tongues, and overcoming the social barriers that immigrant students often bring with them. The stakes are greater than tests and grades: Learning English is the only path to the life these students came here for, and teachers are their guides to a better world.

“It’s an enormous challenge,” says Cynthia Maher, the chair of Alhambra’s ELL department, who has taught there for nearly a decade. “Where in the world do you begin?”

PHM0815AL03A Slow Start
On a late morning in May, at the end of the school year, it takes most of the 55-minute period for Jill Shalongo’s ELL class to review a simple two-page story titled Sick on Saturday.

“Mustafa had a terrible weekend,” a student reads from the page, in a staccato rhythm, pausing before each word. “When he woke up, he had a headache and his throat was sore.”

Shalongo asks her students to highlight each verb, explaining that every sentence has one. “In your language, it’s the same,” she reminds them. A map on the classroom wall labeled “Where Are We From?” includes snapshots of each student, taped to their respective land of origin. “We are all equally different,” a nearby poster reminds them.

The students attempt to identify the verb in the first sentence. “Terrible?” one guesses. Later, Shalongo quizzes them on reading comprehension, asking students to use an electronic device to text their answers to a display screen.

“Her” mom made him a soup for lunch, reads one answer about the meal Mustafa’s mother prepared. “That’s mine, Miss! That’s mine!” a student shouts, proud of his not-quite-correct response.

Shalongo teaches pre-emergent ELL, the level that covers the most basic of English language rules: that “had” is an action word, that the first word in a sentence must be capitalized and that “He is a thin man, tall, European” isn’t the correct word order.

ELL students take a state test for placement in one of three class levels: pre-emergent, basic and intermediate; those who pass the intermediate level move on to sophomore English. Most need more than four years to graduate, even with the help of evening, weekend or summer classes.

PHM0815AL04The progress can be painfully slow. In Shalongo’s pre-emergent classes last year, some students arrived in the United States mid-semester. Others, though, had been in Arizona as long as five years without advancing to the next level, leading students to call one 19-year-old elder statesman “Mister.”

Not all students have the patience: As the school year goes on, it’s not uncommon for ELL students to disappear, too overwhelmed to continue with class. In the 2013-2014 school year, only 15 percent of Alhambra’s ELL students graduated, compared with 71 percent of the student body (although that figure doesn’t account for former ELL students who graduated after advancing to regular classes).

“With language learning, there are periods where you don’t feel you’re learning anything,” Shalongo says. “Your brain is building those connections, but you don’t know that. You want to give up.”

Refugees Rescued
Hla Naing had a kindergarten-level education when she moved to the U.S. in 2010. School wasn’t an option in her Thailand refugee camp, where her family, who fled there from neighboring Burma (now Myanmar), scavenged for plants and vegetables to make a living. “We just got to find money to survive,” says Naing, 18, who has five siblings. “There was no future. If you don’t come to America, it’s going to be like that the rest of your life.”

Naing graduated from Alhambra in May and is enrolling at Glendale Community College – an extreme rarity for refugees. Less than 1 percent of the world’s 16 million refugees – defined as people forced to seek protection across international borders – are annually resettled to a country that accepts them as permanent residents. Arizona took in nearly 3,000 last year, the 5th-highest number in the U.S.

A family’s efforts to leave refugee camps can span generations, says Nicky Walker, development manager at the International Rescue Committee, one of four resettlement agencies in Phoenix. As families are shuffled between countries and camps, in hot zones such as Sudan and Syria, getting an education often isn’t feasible – or safe. Walker has heard stories of buses pelted by gunfire on the way to school.

In America, she says, “When they hear they’re going to go to school every day, it’s a dream come true.”

As agencies like the IRC place families in nearby apartment complexes, Alhambra has become a go-to school for ELL education that draws students from other parts of the Phoenix Union High School District and also from other districts.

It attracts teachers, too: Shalongo, 50, started at Alhambra last school year, having previously worked at a school where she was the only ELL teacher and where students were primarily Hispanic. With Alhambra’s diversity and 12-teacher ELL staff, she says, “It’s an ELL teacher’s dream place to work.”

Refugees arrive throughout the year, meaning that any day could be a student’s first day of school. At Alhambra, ELL enrollment swelled by nearly 100 students from the beginning to the end of last school year, prompting the school to hire two long-term substitutes.

When students begin school, teachers may not know more than their native country and language, as well as their name – sometimes. Maher has realized some students have names that aren’t their own, aliases that were assigned to them at refugee camps or divided by syllables in an attempt to create an American first and last name.

Between students’ limited English and their culture shock when starting school, their level of education can be a mystery to teachers. Some students are highly educated, like those from Iraq whose families qualified for a special immigrant visa after having worked with U.S. forces there. Others are starting from scratch. “We have kids who need Romper Room 101: They need to cut paper, draw straight lines, learn what a circle is,” Maher says. “They have never been in school.”

Refugee life is usually left undiscussed in the classroom, but teachers get hints that education was sometimes the least of a family’s concerns. One student told Maher that in a refugee camp, supposedly a safe haven, his father was killed. When Maher put her hand on another student’s shoulder, he asked her to stop, seemingly afraid of being touched.

Cultural Context
In her intermediate class last year, Maher turned a discussion about letter writing in Little Women into a conversation about American correspondence: Do you know what a cover letter is? What would you write on a college application? With A Tale of Two Cities, it was law and government: What’s a trial? What does “revolution” mean?

Teachers weave cultural context into their classes, knowing that some of the most important lessons about American society can’t be learned in a book. “That’s part of my job, to explain to kids what’s the norm here,” Maher says. “They’re teenagers – they’re trying to figure out where they fit in, and all of a sudden, they’re on a different planet.”

Hispanic ELL students haven’t completely left their world. They can hear their language on the radio or TV, find the foods they miss from home. But everything is foreign for refugees, some of whom have never been exposed to American culture and may not have any classmates who understand where they came from.

Maher, 50, knows the feeling. Like Shalongo and other ELL teachers at Alhambra, she has lived outside the U.S.: in Mexico as a child and, for four years after graduate school, in Egypt, where she taught English and met her Sudanese husband. Seeing her students struggle to adjust reminds her of panicking in Egyptian grocery stores or blasting Whitney Houston’s rendition of the U.S. national anthem on the days she missed home.

ELL students pick up the obvious cultural cues: Like in any other classroom, they wear flip-flops and sparkly nail polish, and they know how to question a homework assignment with attitude: “Seriously?!” But it might be decades before they truly reconcile their native culture with American life.

“It will probably take them the better part of 20, 25 years before they figure it out,” Maher says. “And some of them probably won’t because they’ll be so busy just surviving.”


More Than an English Teacher
The keloid had been growing for five years, so painful that the student was struggling to study, sleep and even eat.

After calls to guardians weren’t productive, Maher considered the girl to be her responsibility. Rallying teachers and friends to donate funds, she found a surgeon to remove the growth from the girl’s ear so that health wouldn’t get in the way of her learning. The girl graduated last year.

In the ELL department, the duties of teachers often extend far beyond creating lesson plans and grading tests. Phoenix Union doesn’t have ELL textbooks, leaving teachers to create much of their own material in addition to using state standards and computer programs.

Last year, Maher’s job description also included overseeing materials for an Eritrean student unlike any she’d ever taught. The girl, who speaks the obscure language Kunama, was learning two new languages simultaneously: English and Braille. Blind since childhood, she read books like Curious George, with Maher arranging for Braille adaptations of homework and quizzes.

After-hours, ELL teachers have visited homes of families who can’t communicate by phone, spent their own money on resources like hard-to-find dictionaries and collected used clothing for students to shop at school.

“What I find with ELL teachers is that they go way above and beyond on the human level,” says Alhambra’s principal, Claudio Coria. “I’ve noticed that far more here than any other place I’ve ever worked.”

Says Shalongo: “We have a sense that we’re more than their English teachers.”

But with that involvement comes the sad realization that not all problems can be solved – and that class only matters so much in the context of students’ chaotic lives.

With their fledgling English skills, some students are the default adults of their families. Some work nights or weekends at stores like Walmart – jobs their parents, who don’t speak English, couldn’t obtain. The teenagers are the ones who pay the bills, obtain food stamps, handle medical problems and serve as translator for a host of situations, even translating their own discipline issues at school.

The stresses of a new culture, language and finances are too much for some families to bear. Maher knows of a student’s grandfather who committed suicide after moving to the U.S. “The world had just changed beyond what he could adjust to,” she says.

While it’s difficult to accept that there are limits to her help, Maher tries to remember this: “I am one person in my students’ lives who’s always going to smile and be happy to see them,” she says. “For a lot of teachers, that’s their thing: They want to be there for somebody in a way that makes a difference.”

A Piece of Their Journey
Sarmad Shaban was red-faced and trembling when he enrolled at Alhambra in 2009, able to say only “yes” and “no” in English and too terrified to attempt much else.

Such a pathetic image is hard to imagine now that he and his two brothers have graduated from Alhambra and are taking college classes. The family, Iraqi nationals who took refuge in Jordan for political reasons, opened an auto collision shop and dealership in Central Phoenix. If the past is any guide, Shaban, a mechanic at the shop, thinks he can achieve his next goal: transferring from Gateway Community College to Arizona State University to study mechanical engineering.  

“Our dream was to have our own house, and we got our own house. To drive a car, and I drove a car to school,” says Shaban, 21. “You have to work hard for it, but United States makes your dreams come true.”

Most ELL students won’t dream quite as big. Overall, 54 percent of Alhambra graduates attend college, slightly lower than the 57 percent overall figure for high school grads in Arizona; however,  the rate is far lower for ELL students, who often support their families by working instead of continuing their education.

But Coria, the principal, says metrics can’t capture the reasons to celebrate ELL students. During their time at Alhambra, they’ve played sports, joined leadership clubs, danced at the prom. Students whose native countries are at war sat side by side in class, helping each other with homework. Forty-six of them graduated last year.

“They’re leaving us in a better position, whether they’re going to get a job or help their family,” he says. “We get caught up with test scores – those are important, but I think the human dynamics are equally important, if not more.”

The significance isn’t lost on teachers. “When you look at their faces and think about where they came from, you think, man, it’s an honor to be in front of them,” Shalongo says. “To be a little piece of their journey.”