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Clayton’s English Language Learners
The Globe examines the challenges that students from non-English speaking countries face at Clayton High School and how the English Language Program helps them reach success.
November 13, 2019
Classroom 112 sits behind an unassuming brown door tucked away next to the library. This room is home to the English Language Program (ELP) and teacher Amy Chappuis.
The ELP is a district-wide program designed to assist students whose native language is not English and who demonstrate a need for additional support in keeping up with Clayton’s rigorous curriculum. The program focuses on four basic areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Chappuis works with around 50 students between the elementary and high schools to identify their strengths as well as areas of improvement. At the end of every school year, students in the program take a screener test mandated by the state of Missouri. Upon hitting a certain score, students begin to exit the program and take on a monitor status, where they are not fully in the program but are still closely watched and supported.
“The idea is that they have this little bit of help until they don’t need it anymore,” Chappuis said.
One of the biggest struggles for EL students is adapting to the very language-heavy classes taught at Clayton. Not just humanities courses pose this problem — even science and math classes are taught with an emphasis on conceptual learning that requires additional knowledge and vocabulary.
“There might be a question that requires some background knowledge that like if you grew up here, you know it,” Chappuis said. “For example, a couple years ago I had a student who was taking a chemistry test. And one of the options for a multiple choice question was a throwaway answer, like everyone in the class would know that wasn’t the right one. The answer was Windex. The question was all about chemicals, so anybody would read the problem and say, ‘oh, that’s not it.’ But this student said to me, ‘what’s Windex?’ And so that was the kind of thing where as soon as I explained it, he was like, ‘Oh, of course that’s not the answer.’ Like he totally knew.”
Chappuis works with classroom teachers to adapt and modify the course materials to assist non-native English speakers. “Sometimes it’s just about bridging that gap between what is expected of a native speaker and what [EL students are] coming in with; just pointing them in the right direction and saying, ‘you’re already a smart kid, but here’s what we’re asking you to do,’” she said.
Students coming into CHS who are part of the program tend to have studied English in their home country, according to Chappuis. However, these students have often been taught by native speakers of another language and will sometimes be hesitant to speak in classes at Clayton because they do not feel confident with their English. This is when they can turn to ELP classes for support. These classes are usually taken as electives in students’ schedules — like a Learning Center.
“I think this is a good way to explain it:” Chappuis said. “Once you reach the high school level, you’re never going to be in a class that’s teaching about sounds in English. That’s taught at the elementary level when kids are learning to speak and read and write. So if somebody is having a difficult time with a particular sound that maybe they don’t have in their home language, we might work on that.”
In addition to the basics of the language, Chappuis works with students on a broad variety of topics, ranging more complex aspects of English like how to use a semicolon or utilizing supporting evidence in an analysis paper, to what to wear at a pep rally.
Coming from a different country with different customs and norms without a very strong grasp of the nuances of the language, students in the ELP program often have a difficult time integrating.
These struggles that ELP students face are ones that Chappuis directly understands. After college, she taught English in Poland for a year.
“It was so isolating not knowing the language when I went there,” Chappuis said. “I felt like I was always talking about the weather or other things that you learn in a class, and I felt isolated because I felt like nobody really knew me. ”
Saint Louis in particular is a very difficult place for anyone not from the area. Residents have often lived in the area their whole lives, and CHS students are no exception.
In order to help ELP students feel like part of the community, Chappuis encourages students to join sports or other extracurriculars where they get the chance to know others with similar interests in a non-academic environment. In classes, Chappuis said, “they might come off as boring or aloof, but once the kids have something to talk about or they have something in common, then those barriers come down.”
This makes bridging the gap all the more important. The Globe talked to several students who have graduated from the program, as well as one currently in it about the transition and their plans moving forward.
JOHN WANG, CHINA
John Wang’s first time in the United States was in 2016 when he moved to Clayton to live with his sister, then a resident at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Even smaller-scale moves have implications; Wang’s move, however, involved leaving both his parents in order to better his chances at getting into a good university. Until last year, he saw his parents only over the summer and has not been back to his native China to date – though he plans to return right after graduation.
After his sister moved to Boston right last year, Wang’s parents have been switching off travelling to Clayton to stay with him. “It’s really hard because my parents are both doctors,” Wang said. “They have a lot of things to do, obviously, so they have to sacrifice their vacation time to be with me.”
While his English was more than functional when he moved, Wang credits the ELP program with helping him transition into the Clayton community.
“I think the English learning program has helped me to improve my communication skills so I can better connect with the other Clayton students. I think that’s a very powerful thing because, as English learners, it is important for us to express ourselves, and by giving us this great opportunity to improve our English, we can better connect with other students and express our ideas…. [The ELP program] gave me a sense of community.”
Taking all the opportunities he can here in Saint Louis, Wang’s days are filled with AP classes, his afternoons busy with rehearsals for the school play and his weekends spent volunteering at the Siteman Cancer Center.
ABTIN ALIZADEH, IRAN
Abtin Alizadeh arrived in Clayton a little over two months ago. After spending his childhood primarily in Iran with periods in California and Maryland, Alizadeh’s family moved to Clayton when his father got a job at Washington University.
Although he misses his friends in Iran, Alizadeh pushed for his family to make the move to the United States again. “I’m planning on staying [in the US] for college and everything,” he said. “That was the point of moving. My parents both had good jobs back in our country, but they actually [moved] for me and my sister so we could grow up in a better place and go to better universities and colleges.”
Along the line of moving to ‘a better place,’ Alizadeh notes a large difference between schools in Iran and Clayton, saying, “They’re way better here. They’re so big. We have better facilities, especially sports facilities, [here]. Academically it’s better too … basically everything is better.”
Taking advantage of all that Clayton offers, Alizadeh is a member of the basketball team and devotes a lot of his time to practicing.
The hardest aspect of moving had been the language; however, Alizadeg says, “[The EL program] is a good support. The teacher, Ms. Chappuis, is so supportive and helpful. Even when we don’t ask her, she offers help in everything – even in things that she isn’t expected to help with.”
SISI YANG, CHINA
Sisi Yang, now a senior, and her mother moved to Clayton at the start of her freshman year mainly for educational purposes. They chose Saint Louis because Yang’s father, who remains in Shanghai, has friends in the area.
Although she started learning English in first grade, Yang said that the hardest part of the move was getting to meet and talk to native English speakers. “I think I am scared to talk to people at first because I’m afraid that others won’t understand me.”
During her time at CHS, however, Yang has exited from the EL program, signifying a high level of proficiency in English, and she has joined clubs such as Clayton Connect and was a member of the CHS golf team.
In addition to hesitancy to speak, Yang mentioned another barrier she faced in her transition. When trying to make friends, she noticed how much conversations centered around popular culture — a topic that varies greatly between nations.
“I think it’s just that people are always talking about TV shows and stuff,” she said. “And I’ve just never watched them.” However, she credits the community with being very welcoming and willing to help.