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NEW BEDFORD — Flynn Hill, a Tabor Academy junior from Aspen, Colorado, on a recent weekday morning sat with 14-year-old Robin Hernandez, who came to New Bedford from El Salvador and 13-year-old Dariel Lugo, who came to the city from Puerto Rico.

The Level 4 Honors Spanish student is part of a group of Tabor students who are working with Roosevelt Middle School English language learners as part of the AMIGOS Project run by the Immigrants’ Assistance Center.

On the Thursday morning, Hill was helping the students understand a passage from a story about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The story was part of a lesson for Black History Month and included comprehension questions the middle-schoolers had to answer.

During an ice breaker, in which the the students were asked to find two things they have in common, the three students found that they all like art and wolves. As they worked together, reading the passage in English, and going over the multiple choice questions, the conversation became more organic, discussing favorite movies, superheroes and video games.

“It doesn’t matter where we come from; we can always find something in common,” said Suzanne Norcross, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in her 239 Language Lab classroom.

The Immigrants’ Assistance Center originally created the AMIGOS Project (A Multilingual, International, Guidance Outreach Service) in 2009. The Tabor Spanish classes are taking turns visiting the middle school students for an hour a day, four mornings a week, tutoring them and acting as mentors.

This story by Aimee Chiavaroli first appeared in the Standard-Times – HERE

By the numbers

Thirteen of 24 Tabor Spanish classes are involved in the project in order to allow the students to be there often enough to make a difference. It’s a different class each time, depending on which class meets during the first period of the day. The visit counts as class time for both groups of students.

“We’re thrilled that this support is here because of just the sheer amount of students that have limited English,” said Daniel Bossolt who’s in his third year as the Roosevelt principal.

Out of 850-plus students at Roosevelt, nearly 300 students are English learners, Bossolt said. Of those, nearly 30 students have been displaced after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Around 10 students are considered Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education or SLIFE.

In the 2016-17 school year, about 28 percent of the students in the New Bedford district were English learners, according to state data. And that was prior to the students and families fleeing Puerto Rico for New Bedford.

The Tabor students are also from a diverse background.

Eighty-eight of the 521 students at the private college preparatory school are from 21 countries, and English is not their first language, according to Jonathan Sirois, chairman of the Modern and Classical Languages Department at Tabor. There are a handful of students who grew up in a Spanish speaking household, but only a few would say Spanish is their first language, he said.

The English learners range from Level 1 to 5, with Level 1 more limited in English speaking and 5 more advanced; the levels are determined by state testing.

The lower level students receive at least two to three periods per day of direct ESL instruction by an ESL teacher, as recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. When students transition between levels 3 and 4, the state recommends at least one period per day of direct ESL instruction by an ESL teacher, according to its website.

Spanish, Creole and Portuguese are the three main languages spoken at Roosevelt and students have been there for varying amounts of time.

Of about 70 teachers, four are English learner teachers. Of those four, three speak at least one other language, and one is also a SLIFE teacher, Bossolt said.

Eldimira Contreras, an ESL paraprofessional at Roosevelt, typically works with lower level students in a couple classrooms. She said she’d seen the two groups of students work together once and thought it was great.

“I wish we had more one on one because they need one on one,” Contreras said, which is what the Tabor students can help facilitate.

Contreras, who was born in Cape Verde and came to the U.S. when she was 11, understands what students go through.

“It’s the struggles I went through. The same struggles because it’s not easy at all,” she said, adding bilingual education was in place at that time.

“At home, we had to speak English,” she said, and she wasn’t able to watch TV unless it was in English. Contreras speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Creole and English.

How it started

The program at Roosevelt began when Sirois met with Helena DaSilva Hughes, the executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center after hearing her speak on an immigration panel at the Congregational Church in Mattapoisett. DaSilva Hughes said Sirois told her that the Tabor Spanish students could help with the AMIGOS Project at no cost to New Bedford Public Schools.

Some of the kinks are still being worked out, but how students are paired up depends on where their abilities lie; the program tries to link more advanced Spanish learners with lower level English learners. And vice versa.

The AMIGOS Project has never been “fully implemented” since there was not enough funding; Immigrants’ Assistance Center staff members and volunteers spent most of their time helping parents and families communicate to school staff and faculty, according to DaSilva Hughes.

The program will expose academy students to New Bedford where some families are low-income and live in linguistically isolated neighborhoods, she said. The project has been designed to make sure English learners have an opportunity to reach their academic goals and that they have positive role models, she said.

“I think everyone will win,” she said.

The goal is also to eventually have the Roosevelt students write and share their own immigration stories, DaSilva Hughes said. Down the line, the project could partner with other middle schools, but the plan is to make sure everything is integrated with this school first.

“Especially in middle school, mentors are extremely important,” she said.

Sirois said he’d like to see the project become a central part of the Tabor Spanish curriculum. “We want to expose as many kids as possible to the project, to New Bedford,” he said one recent morning, driving a group of his students to Roosevelt.

“We’re getting a great group of young adults that are strong in speaking two languages. They’re good, positive young adults that can be role models and that’s what we need here desperately,” Bossolt said.

In the classroom

Marlene Gomes has some newcomers and Level 1 students in her Roosevelt class who have been at the school for as little as one to two months. It was the second time she had Tabor students in her seventh and eighth-grade classroom. She explained that it’s better to have fewer students as opposed to 11 students who came to her class the first time, which she said was overwhelming.

Gomes instructs her class in English.

“They’ve got to hear it in English first,” she said. Then, she reviews material in English and clarifies it in the students’ respective native languages. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Creole and English.

She’s been teaching at Roosevelt for 10 years and also went there as a kid. She came from Portugal when she was only a year old.

“It is tough when you speak one language at home and you speak another one in school,” she said. “And the older you are, the harder it is.”

Talking to each other, the Roosevelt students speak in their native languages.

In Norcross’ class, 15-year-old Leonarda Quino said she was born in Guatemala and came to the United States in 2015.

Asked how she feels about the program, she said “I feel nervous.”

“Some words I can pronounce really well,” but when it comes to speaking English, “I don’t feel so confident,” she said. She speaks Spanish at home although her dad speaks English, she said.

Sitting in another group, Quino’s classmate, Ericka Hernandez, 14, said the program with the Tabor students is “good because they help us with what we’re doing,” which she said makes it easier for her.

Hernandez was born in El Salvador and came to the United States about four years ago, which she said was hard. Asked why, she said because “I had to make new friends,” and was met with a new language and school.

Hernandez said her older sister, who is 18, speaks English but her parents speak Spanish. Her dad knows English, but can’t speak it well, so he speaks Spanish, she said.

“It’s hard because sometimes I get confused,” she said.

The project

On the way from Tabor to Roosevelt one morning, Sirois put a Spanish channel on the radio and prepped the students in his Spanish 1 class, also known as an introductory course. It was their first visit to Roosevelt.

“The difficulty did not lie in a language barrier, it was just in the art of the conversation,” he told his students, explaining previous visits he’s had. He encouraged the students to talk about hobbies in order to try to make a connection.

As the Roosevelt students were nervous about speaking English, the Tabor students were a a little nervous about speaking Spanish.

Asked if there were any last minute questions before exiting the van, 14-year-old Carmelia Carter from New York asked how to say “What do you like to do?” in Spanish.

Carter said she was looking forward to hearing what kind of Spanish terms and phrases people use in real conversations, and to hear “a piece of their story and how their lives were before they came.”

This day, 10 Tabor students were split between Norcross’ and Gomes’ classrooms.

Sirois said communication with teachers before visits to get a sense of what the lesson will be will give Tabor students a chance to prepare and hopefully better help the English learners. Also, committing to an ice breaker will help get the students more comfortable with each other.

Shemi Adams, 17 of Atlanta, Georgia, said on the way to Roosevelt that she was excited but also nervous that the students might not want to talk or could be shy. In that case, she’d try to encourage them, she said. She acknowledged that “getting out of the classroom is important” and seeing the culture outside of school.

That morning in Gomes’ class, the Roosevelt students were asked to write in English what they’d wish for, if they could be granted one wish. Sirois said he talked to about five students whose wish had something to do with seeing people back home.

Adams said she liked getting to hear native speakers which is different from the Spanish in her regular class. “I like just listening to her communicate with each kid,” she said after being in Gomes’ classroom.

Carter said it was fun. She said she tried to speak Spanish, but the students talk fast and it was hard to keep up. “They understood (English) but speaking it was hard,” she said.

Roosevelt’s Hernandez and Lugo pointed to words in the passage, wondering about their meaning. They worked with Tabor’s Hill to find and highlight the answers to the questions in the passage.

The students grew more confident speaking English when talking about video games they like to play. Soon enough it was time to leave.

“Nice to meet you,” Hernandez said to Hill, and the two shook hands.

Editor’s Note: Standard-Times reporter Aimee Chiavaroli spent part of four days with Tabor Academy and Roosevelt Middle School students in New Bedford, observing Tabor Spanish class students working with New Bedford English language learners.

This story by Aimee Chiavaroli first appeared in the Standard-Times – HERE