From near and far


Natasha Sanghvi

Anjali Pillendula and Dedrick Pierce-Biney, two eighth grade ESOL students, take a test on the Periodic Table of Elements in Mr. Kevin Reif’s science class, on Nov. 28, 2018.

Natasha Sanghvi, Writer

When she first arrived at Carson, now eighth-grader Wintana Tsegaye was nervous and scared, as most students were. However, the Dolphins student couldn’t read, write or speak English, so she became a part of the RCMS ESOL program.

“I just wanted to learn English,” she said. Her journey has been long, and not necessarily easy, but her overall progress is prominent. She’s also made a lot of friends along the way, many of which are other ESOL students who also didn’t speak English when they came.

Wintana first came to the United States from Ethiopia in April 2017 because her father had come a little earlier and was working here. When she arrived, she could only understand bits and pieces of English, and couldn’t read or speak it at all. She came to Carson last year, as a seventh-grader.

“I was a little bit nervous, I was also very excited,” Wintana said. “It was good, because my teacher was so nice and I got to meet everyone.”

The ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program at Carson is made up of about 80 students, who come from a varying range of countries around the world, such as Ethiopia, Poland, Japan and 12 others.

“One of the most exciting things about the ESOL program is that there isn’t one largely dominant country,” said Mrs. Elena James, a seventh-grade ESOL teacher and the RCMS ELL (English Language Learners) Department Chairperson.

Students in the program come from 15 countries. However, the most common country students arrive from is Ethiopia. Mrs. James added that in the past 10 years, they’ve developed an Ethiopian community in Fairfax County, which has brought more and more people over the years.

The FCPS ESOL program divides students into different levels, one through five, based off of their ability to read, write and speak English. The program at Carson is led by Mrs. James, Mr. Alberto Barrueco, Mrs. Kate Schaefer and Ms. Ashli George.

The ESOL program’s goal is to introduce students to the English language through the normal middle school content, eventually integrating these students into general education classes. When the students first arrive at RCMS, they are given a placement test. This test sorts them into one of five levels. The lower the level, the less English the student knows. Students below level three work only with the ESOL teachers, while students in levels three to five work with their team teachers as well. Once they pass level five, they join mainstream classes. The students receive lots of support from their teachers, but even more from the friends they make.

“I think we have a very accepting culture here at RCMS,” said Mrs. James, who’s been teaching ESOL students for 17 years. “The staff and teachers are wonderful, and the students are very open to them. Their achievements are recognized, and it’s one of the reasons I love working here.

“They’re really a very unique group of students. They appreciate the learning experience, feel comfortable and respected, and it means a lot to them.”

Not only do the teachers have an impact on the students, but the students’ progress has also stunned multiple teachers.

Mrs. Carmen Johnson-Donald is an eighth-grade English teacher who co-teaches an ESOL class. She has been impressed by many students, especially the ones who’ve been able to pick up English at a fast pace.

“[Teaching them] reminds me of how difficult it is to learn English, which can be very confusing,” she said. “It’s a nice reminder.”

Mrs. James also had a similar perspective, saying, “[I feel] very excited. Watching their progress is very, very rewarding. They start to have a sense of confidence and accomplishment. It’s also given me a broader perspective of the world, which intrigues me.”

However, it’s not easy for them at first. Being a kid in a country whose language and culture is unique to what they’re used to can be terrifying.

“I imagine they feel very scared,” said Mrs. James. “However, I do think RCMS is a very welcoming community, and there’s always someone who speaks their language. So they rely on one another as support systems, and end up making so much progress.”

Even though she does miss her friends back in Ethiopia, Wintana has made a lot of friends at Carson, including other ESOL students from Ethiopia. The ESOL program has helped a lot of students, and continues to make these students feel more accepted and at home. Still, a lot of students don’t feel accepted or part of the school. Wintana felt this when she first came to Carson. She says students should “be nice to them, and just help them out,” because in the end, a single act of kindness can make a big impact.