English acquisition a priority at Esperanza Academy
by Sarah Peterson
Esperanza Academy enrolls just 700 students, but the charter high school’s waiting list has 500 names on it.
According to school officials, families are attracted by strict discipline standards and the promise of a rigorous education for all students, including English language learners.
Founded in 2000 by a faith-based community organization called Nueva Esperanza Inc., the school – housed in a Hunting Park building formerly owned by a door manufacturer – takes academics very seriously.
“We offer the best private education that public money can buy,” said Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr., president of the school’s founding organization. Administrators say that when students do leave (Esperanza graduates about two-thirds of its students), it’s often because the school was simply too difficult.
Nearly all of the students – or clients, as school CEO David Rossi calls them – are Latino and from the surrounding neighborhood. Most are either first- or second-generation Puerto Rican, but students from the Dominican Republic make up a large proportion of the 17 percent in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.
Education in English and English acquisition are priorities in the Esperanza curriculum. They take place in a classroom context that acknowledges the reality of language challenges, and in a school context that recognizes and draws on students’ diverse heritages.
Esperanza offers four levels of ESL instruction. To ensure that students are placed at an appropriate level, they take the State Reading Inventory as well as ESL placement tests. Each student also sits down for a personal interview with ESL program director Aurelio Tellado.
Frequent assessments are administered to ensure that nobody slips through the cracks. At one point, Tellado said, a student came to Esperanza from a public school where she had been designated an ELL student. After going through Esperanza’s battery, however, she was enrolled in honors English.
Similarly, 12th grader Maria Soto said that her previous school “didn’t think I was smart enough to read.” Soto came the U.S. from the Dominican Republic five years ago. After enrolling at Esperanza, she learned new material quickly, exited the ESL program, and now hopes to be a civil engineer.
Outside of the ESL classroom, ELL students take their regular courses in English with classroom support. Once a student’s level is determined, “we try to adjust to that so that they can have better experience here in school, and also so that they won’t fall behind just because they have a language barrier,” explained para-educator William Garcia, one of Esperanza’s ESL instructors.
Garcia often provides ESL support within regular classrooms, collaborating with the content teachers to make sure everyone grasps the material.
“Because our school is smaller, we [can] communicate a little more with our content teachers,” ESL teacher Karen Sergovic said. “We have meetings with them more often and we develop professionally with them.”
Students say they notice the difference. Andreina Andeliz said that at Olney High school she was taught basic lessons over and over again – for example, “Mesa means table.”
“How can you learn something you already know?” she asked.
After transferring to Esperanza midway through ninth grade, she said, she has been challenged at an appropriate level.
While students are pushed to excel in English, they are also supported in maintaining their home language. All students, including native Spanish speakers, are required to take Spanish classes.
Esperanza takes pains to update parents, half of whom are bilingual or speak only Spanish, on school events and student progress.
The school also puts a high premium on exposing students to the richness of their cultural heritage through arts, extracurriculars, and even international trips.
Sometimes, that means overcoming conflict between students from different countries; when Puerto Rican and Dominican students started having problems, the school hired Outward Bound to take the ESL students on a day trip for trust exercises and community-building.
“They get to see the diversity even within the Hispanic cultures,” Garcia explained. “We have Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central and South Americans, Mexicans—and they learn to understand each other. We’re not all the same people, just because we speak the same language.”
Garcia and other officials anticipate that with changing neighborhood demographics, the Puerto Rican dominance will fall off as other immigrants move in.
At that point, Garcia said, the school will be ready for whatever comes.