For the hundreds of English language learners enrolled in the Charlottesville and Albemarle County school systems each year, challenges to academic success are immense. Not only must these students learn how to read, write, speak and study a new language, but they must also adapt to a new community and new social norms.
To ease the children’s transitions and accelerate their acquisition of the language, Charlottesville and Albemarle have designed summer programs for their English as a Second or Other Language populations.
This summer, for the first time, the two school districts have collaborated on a six-week camp for middle school students hailing from all corners of the globe, from Afghanistan to El Salvador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“The relationship with Charlottesville City made a lot of sense, because we share a great number of our students,” said Rusty Carlock, world languages and ESOL coordinator for Albemarle County Public Schools. “Often, we will have one student transfer to us from the county, then transfer back to the city, several times over the course of the student’s career.”
Called Immersion Excursion, Albemarle developed the program three years ago with an initial cohort of 18 students. This year, having received $10,000 in grants from both the Batten Family Fund and the Bama Works Fund, the program has tripled in size, serving 30 middle-schoolers from both the city and the county, and 25 high-schoolers from Albemarle.
The program is intentionally designed to eschew standardized methods of instruction for “hands-on” experiential learning. From Monday through Wednesday students are in class, learning content that they then put to use every Thursday through excursions to community resources in the area.
One week, for example, students worked in teams to design their own miniature zip line while learning scientific concepts and English vocabulary such as “engineering.” That Thursday, the students then put their new knowledge to use while completing a ropes course at Triple C Camp.
“It’s amazing that the students get to go experience what they have just learned,” said Filadelfia Soto, who teaches for the high school ESOL summer program. “They read something new in their books and then get to go see it, touch it and feel it.”
Helping students prepare for learning in an English instructional setting is not the only goal of the program, however. Teachers and administrators said they hope the camp also enables participants to feel more comfortable in their new community and inspires them to imagine what their role could be in it.
“These students have faced unimaginable hardships and have developed skill sets we can’t even imagine,” said Laura Brown, family engagement liaison at Burley Middle School.
Most students, she said, had no idea that the places they visited during camp were out there and accessible to them.
“This program instills in them a sense of potential for what they can do in the Charlottesville-Albemarle community,” Brown said.
Teachers and students agree that the most valuable part of the program is the friendships it has facilitated across both cultural and locality lines.
“The students came in from the first day with the desire to learn each other’s languages and cultures,” Brown said. “It’s been amazing to see the strong friendships they have formed.”
“I’ve made a lot of new friendships,” said Bikash Magar, a rising ninth-grader at Charlottesville High School who is from Nepal.
He pointed to Srush Sardar-Mohammed, a student from Russia who was standing by his side, for emphasis.
“He is my friend,” Magar said.
Due to the combination of field trips and connections with fellow ESOL students, participants say learning English in the camp has been made both easier and more fun than in the traditional school setting.
“Here, I am not the only one with an accent,” said Mariam Majuto, a rising seventh-grader at Buford Middle, who came to the United States from the Congo. “We all help each other learn.”
Currently, the program is only open to those who came to the United States in the last three years and are still in the elementary stages of mastering English. Due to a constraint on resources, program coordinators were not able to meet all student demand.
Teachers say they hope funding remains available to expand the program further to grant other ESOL students the same opportunities.
“We just need to give these students a little time so they can put their worlds together,” Soto said. “When you take a moment and let them talk, you will be amazed at what they have to say.”
The program culminates this week with a trip to Richmond, but teachers said they are confident the friendships and knowledge gained will outlast the summer and will propel students toward higher academic success.
“The Immersion Excursion Program connects to the idea of what democracy is all about,” Carlock said. “It’s about people coming from all over and getting together around common projects.”
“It represents the best of what this country is,” he said.