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'No one would talk to me': The challenges ESOL students face in school and at home
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Johnson High ESOL students Brenda Garcia, right, Eduardo Vazquez, center, and Jesus Rios, left, meet Wednesday, March 17, 2021, to discuss the challenges of learning English while at school. - photo by Scott Rogers

Brenda Garcia spent months during the sixth grade hiding from bullies in the school bathroom. At the age of 12, she moved to Oakwood from El Salvador with little understanding of English. Garcia said she spent the majority of her first year hiding from those who bullied her.

Without a community and fluency in English, Garcia said it was difficult to balance learning a new language in a new country and other academic subjects at the same time.

“No one would talk to me, or they’d call me names because I didn’t speak English and I wasn’t from here,” said the Johnson High School junior. “The bullying and learning English made it hard to focus in my other classes too.”

These challenges are common among English for Speakers of Other Languages students, according to Jennifer Anderson, ESOL teacher at Johnson High School. ESOL students are classified as students whose first language is one other than English. 

Hall County spokesperson Stan Lewis confirmed there are 5,539 ESOL students among nearly 27,000 enrolled students in the county system. In the Gainesville City School System, Superintendent Jeremy Williams said there are approximately 2,400 ESOL students among 7,172 enrolled students.

Anderson, who has been teaching for 24 years, said ESOL students experience unique challenges not often faced by English speakers. She said her students face a language barrier, cultural differences and often difficult home and socioeconomic conditions. Students in the ESOL program also tend to show inconsistent attendance, Anderson said, but not for lack of wanting to learn. 

One of Anderson’s students works before and after school to financially assist her family, which means she has also had frequent absences, Anderson said. 

Other ESOL students may have received little education in their home country. Anderson said she had one student who hadn’t gone to a formal school since the first grade.

“It’s not unusual for a lot of our students who come from low-income families to miss school or take care of a younger sibling at home so a parent can work,” Anderson said. “Then I have some who received little education before arriving, and we’re almost starting from scratch.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created another challenge in ESOL classrooms, Anderson said.

She said part of how she teaches students English is through watching their mouth movements and enunciation of words. But wearing masks makes it difficult to teach pronunciation and vocabulary of another language, Anderson said. 

Additionally, Anderson said most of the assigned material is now online, making it harder to continue a reliable education for a majority of her students who have never used a laptop. 

“So many of my students don’t have the financial luxury of owning a technology at home or in their home country. So with the pandemic and switching to electronic learning, we had to teach our students how to use computers and virtual platforms,” Anderson said. 

Johnson senior Eduardo Vazquez said the start of his academic journey was difficult, as he struggled to learn the basic school subjects entirely in a foreign language. 

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Johnson High ESOL student Jesus Rios talks with teacher Jennifer Anderson Wednesday, March 17, 2021, about the difficulty of learning a new language. - photo by Scott Rogers

He is a first generation Mexican American and will be the first in his family to attend college after his graduation. 

Vazquez said he plans to attend Kennesaw State University in the fall and has hopes of becoming a math teacher. 

Vazquez and Garcia said they confused the meanings of English and Spanish letters in classes like algebra and English language arts. Garcia said, as a freshman, she was hesitant to ask questions during class out of fear of mispronouncing a word in English.

“I’m not like the regular students; we have to work twice as hard to translate words in our heads or not feel ashamed of not speaking English well enough,” Garcia said in Spanish.

Those examples of fear of speaking up are not uncommon, according to Brittany Mendoza, Mundy Mill Academy ESOL lead teacher.

Mendoza said most ESOL students need a boost in confidence to help their performance in the classroom. 

Whether a student answers a vocabulary word correctly or says a sentence in English, Mendoza said the students and their peers “beam with pride.” For her students, Mendoza prefers a visual teaching style, especially when teaching ESOL students slang or unique phrases used in the South. 

If the students are going over a lesson about the Civil War, Mendoza said she’ll bring in money from that time period so the students can connect what they’ve learned with a physical item. It also helps when a student can connect a visual or item to the word in their native tongue and then learn it in English.

“As an ESOL teacher, you just have to find creative ways to engage and help students. Learning a new language is difficult; it’s even harder learning math, science and more in that foreign language,” Mendoza said.

Shea Ray, federal programs director for Gainesville City Schools and Michelle Cantrell, ESOL coordinator, said Gainesville schools encourage ESOL students to continue to write and speak in their native language with friends and at home. Ray said the school system tells students their ability to speak one language and learn another is a skill not an “obstacle.” Cantrell said Gainesville teachers promote the notion that being bilingual will open up more career opportunities for the students. 

“We promote being bilingual and the importance of that so students feel like they have a skill, not something to be ashamed of,” Ray said. 

ESOL staff say the students and their families are resilient.

“It is an absolute privilege for us to be able to help their children learn English and grow as students,” Cantrell said.   

Interviews with students Garcia and Vazquez were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by Gabriela Miranda.