MODESTO — The Davis High Language Institute serves about 135 just-arrived immigrants from around the globe, from refugees fleeing war in the Middle East to new faces from neighboring Mexico.
In its fourth year, the unique Modesto program helps teens acclimate to U.S. life while mastering academics.
History teacher Lindsey Bird helped create the program and developed the institute's signature course, an acculturation primer on everything from birthday parties to banking systems.
Teachers learn on the job, with no certificates or credentials yet developed in this emerging field. That lack of formal distinction means teachers with more seniority can "bump" Language Institute teachers.
After this interview was held, Bird was notified that is happening to her. Next year, the nine-year teacher was told she will have two high school periods, then drive to a junior high for the rest of the day.
Her departure will be the second key loss for the program. Davis Principal and program co-developer Lynn Lysko was notified in December that her contract would not be renewed for 2013-14.
The Bee had asked Bird to talk about the program and what it was like to teach on the cutting edge.
Q: How is teaching in the Language Institute like, and not like, other high school classes you've taught?
A: I've always taught English learners. (New immigrants) are different in the sense that they typically can't depend on their family for some of the guidance and-or answers one might expect a family to provide. It isn't because their families are indifferent to their needs; they are just new to the country and unaware of our culture and educational system.
I've found this job has transformed me into more than just a deliverer of content, but also into a community and cultural liaison for immigrant families.
Q: What are some of the struggles kids bring to school, and what has worked best to help them?A: We've worked with Iraq war refugees that have lost family members, sometimes right in front of their eyes, during the war. One student was struggling, with his feelings for a girl getting in the way of his studies. After some interventions, we learned he'd witnessed his girlfriend get into a car that exploded before his eyes.
Many of our Spanish-speaking immigrants are witnesses and victims of what we refer to as the "unofficial war," where narco violence has altered their young lives tremendously.
Some of our Asian students have told stories about being hit when they didn't know the right answer in math class, so they excel at the subject but fear it at the same time.
We've heard stories that one simply could not make up, but what we must always remember is that each student is an individual.
What has worked is listening, accepting and showing them that America can offer them a bright future as long as they are willing to do the hard work and seize the moment.
We don't ever want our students to forget their past, but rather to use their experiences to empower and motivate them to a better future for themselves and their families.
Q: If you could offer one service through the program that isn't available now, what would it be?A: Now that we are four years into the program, our results are starting to speak for themselves. It is exciting to see students accomplish more in a few shorts years than it takes some families generations to achieve.
That being said, we still have a huge educational gap in our community to meet the needs of immigrants who are not of school age. Our students have siblings and parents hungry to learn the language and culture of America.
I'd love to see an adult version of our program available to educate parents about the basics we take for granted: how to read a report card, how do I excuse my child's absence, how do I fill out the paperwork for school or insurance. All of these tasks are daunting for native speakers, but are almost impossible for new immigrants.
Q: What have you and fellow teachers had to learn on the job?A: First, I must mention that there was no formal training for this program because what we are doing is a new concept. We are not implementing an existing structure, but rather building one that meets student needs as we go.
I'd say the biggest learning curve I faced on the job is incorporating the basics (as "simple" as the Roman alphabet) into lessons that are age-appropriate. We also have to be skilled at using our more advanced students of the same language in a way that is mutually beneficial to both students, without allowing those partnerships to become crutchlike.
We incorporate a lot of verbal practice into our daily routine. That can be uncomfortable for a teacher who was raised in a system where a quiet classroom was a sign of classroom management. We've had to let go of the notion that compliance equals learning.
Q: What training have you developed or what advice would you give to help an incoming teacher adapt to this very different teaching environment?A: We had the opportunity to train a new teacher entering the program and to advise other districts that are considering implementing similar programs to meet the needs of their immigrant populations.
The general advice I could give that would span the spectrum of culture and language is: Be aware that only a portion of your job will be content delivery. To truly meet the needs of the immigrant population, you must be willing to be a little bit of everything to that child: parent, friend, counselor, advocate, adviser and sometimes lifeline.
How we treat them teaches them about America.