57 LANGUAGES, ONE SCHOOL SYSTEM Nearly 1,600 Jacksonville Students Wrestle with Learning English

Article excerpt

Sakib Hadzic has an extended family scattered throughout the

eastern United States, Bosnia and Croatia.

But he has found few of his eighth-grade classmates at

Southside Middle School know much about his homeland, Bosnia, or

the war that forced his family to leave.

"Where are you from, where are you from, everybody asks that,"

he said wearily, in heavily accented English. "Many people do

not understand."

Eighteen months after he arrived at school with no ability to

speak to his American classmates, Sakib is just beginning to

cross that divide.

He is among the nearly 1,600 students in Jacksonville public

schools this year who slowly are learning the fundamentals of

the English language and American culture, and contributing to

an ethnic mix in classrooms that was virtually unknown a decade

ago.

Enrollment in the English as a Second Language program has more

than doubled in the past six years, reflecting Jacksonville's

emergence as a primary destination for immigrants fleeing

poverty, war and religious persecution.

The impact on the public schools is profound.

Students who speak a native language other than English attend

classes in two-thirds of the public schools. At San Jose

Elementary School, a feeder for Southside Middle, more than a

third of the students speak an alternate language.

At Southside Middle, where Sakib is enrolled, a second,

full-time English proficiency teacher was added this year. Her

classroom includes students from Bosnia, Croatia, Vietnam, Cuba,

Puerto Rico, Russia, Syria, Haiti and American cities with

non-English speaking populations.

About 60 percent of the students in the program were born in

the United States but raised in non-English speaking families

and communities, said Margaret Shortridge, supervisor of the

English as a Second Language program.

Yearly, about a third of these students become proficient

enough to leave the program, and circulate through all their

classroom subjects with American peers.

But new enrollment is outpacing the graduations.

Spanish-speaking children continue to be the most numerous, but

in recent years Bosnian students have flowed into the schools,

particularly on the Southside.

"It follows where there is strife in the world," Shortridge

said.

Students receive instruction in English proficiency until they

can achieve the 33rd percentile on norm referenced tests. Some

may achieve that in a few years, depending on their knowledge of

English, parental support and educational history.

The children are assigned to grades based on their ages and

education, and will be held back a grade if they have a failing

average at year's end, the same standard as any child,

Shortridge said.

Because of war, some children have never attended school at

all. Others have learned different languages in refuge camps.

They typically can speak English long before they become

functionally literate.

"They give you a test. You don't know what it is," Sakib said.

"Many times, I asked for help. In Bosnia, I had B's and A's.

Now, it's where, not so good. D's."

Nevertheless, several middle school students said they are

bored by the material covered in their American classrooms, or

that their homeland schools were much more difficult.

"Everything was harder in my country," said Rim Alberre, who

came to Jacksonville with her family from Syria two years ago.

Now an eighth-grader, Rim struggled through three months of

isolation in her first year. …