733 students, 32 countries, 15 languages
Six fifth-graders are learning English in Monica Tubb’s morning language arts class.
Two boys haven’t memorized the ABCs yet. One, a Syrian refugee, still completes assignments in Arabic.
Tubb simplifies every story that the English-language learners read. She uses illustrations to teach them vocabulary words. She crams worksheets with letters and numbers into folders for students to practice.
The number of immigrants in Tubb’s classroom has increased since she started working at Forest Lane Academy three years ago. Her first year, one student couldn’t speak English. That seemed daunting enough until she partnered with another teacher who taught phonics.
By the end of the school year, he read the young-adult novel “The Hunger Games.”
“When the instruction is on their level, they make amazing gains in what they know,” Tubb says.
But Tubb sometimes worries she’s not doing enough to help her immigrant students catch up to their peers.
“If I don’t do all the extra stuff I’m doing, it’s doing them a disservice,” she says.
Forest Lane Academy’s staff educates one of Richardson ISD’s most diverse student bodies. The number of immigrant students has dramatically increased from 3.6 percent to 29 percent in five years, according to Public Education Information Management System data.
Roughly 212 of the school’s 733 students moved from countries such as Syria, El Salvador and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Students speak 15 languages — Spanish, Arabic and Farsi are the most common.
Some students have never stepped foot inside a classroom, either.
“The things they deal with are unimaginable to me,” principal Lariza Liner says. “They deal with them every day, but they come to school with a smile on their face.”
They arrive at the Lake Highlands elementary school with little knowledge of the language and even less understanding of American social norms. Students, at first, don’t understand why they have to walk in a line through the halls or raise their hand to go to the bathroom. They sometimes hit their peers, not with malicious intent, but out of sheer frustration and loneliness.
It’s up to staff to ease their culture shock and help them adjust, all while overseeing classrooms of roughly 22 students and following state-mandated curriculum.
“They have to have heart”
School counselor Copeland Norcross is never bored.
He juggles small group and one-on-one counseling with guidance lessons about bullying, self-control and anger management. Norcross, who started his career in North Carolina, is the first to guide foreign students through the campus.
He uses sweeping hand gestures and visual cues to demonstrate appropriate behavior at school. Sometimes, students have no clue what Norcross is conveying, he says, so he’s forced to brainstorm new methods of communication — over and over again.
Remaining optimistic is taxing, but working at Forest Lane Academy requires patience. Much of the staff is young — experience isn’t what’s most important to Liner. She hires staff members, in part, by how much they care for the students.
“They have to have heart,” she says. “They have to have resilience. The kids need to be seen as an opportunity.”
A school as challenging as Forest Lane Academy is a dream job for Liner, who walked away from her teaching career at Plano ISD to work as an administrator at Title 1 schools in Irving and now Lake Highlands.
She’s determined to create experiences for students that they don’t receive at home. The school’s entire population lives in apartments between Interstate 635 and Audelia Road, and 90 percent are economically disadvantaged. Families shuffle through the neighborhood so often that roughly 265 students transfer in and out of the school throughout the year.
Since there are no nearby parks, Liner installed a basketball court in the schoolyard. She coordinates field trips, author visits and appearances from Santa Claus before the holidays.
She received a grant to teach kindergarten, first- and second-grade students computer coding. Every room at Forest Lane Academy has a library.
Because of the school’s high mobility rate, Liner can’t track many of the students once they reach junior high. It’s why she’s adamant about encouraging a love of literacy and technology at an early age.
“If you give them that gift of reading, that lasts beyond Forest Lane Academy,” she says.
“You’re teaching them how to learn”
Taylor Christian’s kindergartners are loud and animated.
“One, two, eyes on me,” she shouts to get their attention. “One, two, eyes on you,” they repeat in unison.
Once they’ve settled down, the kids practice writing the alphabet in groups. Some copy words from books; others mold Play-Doh into letters. When they finish the activities, they rush to Christian, who doles out high-fives before ushering them to their seats.
She’s multitasking between disciplining a handful of rambunctious kids and teaching another group of mostly immigrants about the difference between uppercase and lowercase letters.
“Uppercase,” she says, throwing her arms into the air. “Big.”
“Lowercase. Small,” she explains, as she pinches her thumb and index finger together.
Teachers group students together to ensure their needs are being met, regardless of their reading level. Native English speakers and non-native speakers are paired to help each other, along with students who speak similar languages. Posters, illustrations and flashcards are other tools that teachers employ to help immigrant students keep pace with their classmates.
English as a Second Language specialists, bilingual specialists and an ESL aide work with students in their classes or one-on-one sessions. Like Norcross, they have to start with the basics, even showing them what to do in a classroom.
“If they’ve had a foundation of education, they know how to learn,” says ESL specialist Skylar Phillips. “If they haven’t, you’re teaching them how to learn. It adds another step we have to take.”
They learn social jargon, like “locker” or “door” quickly, Liner says, but frequently struggle with the language used in textbooks. Staff also has to balance between improving students’ English and teaching state-mandated curriculum that may be hard for them to comprehend. Children are required to take STAAR exams, which rates student achievement, regardless of their English proficiency. Only students who haven’t attended school before and have lived in the U.S. for less than a year are exempt.
Forest Lane Academy met state standards during the 2016-17 school year, despite the many language barriers, according to the Texas Education Agency. Liner and the rest of her staff don’t dwell on test results. Success is measured by the moments when everything clicks — when a student speaks in a complete sentence or writes their name for the first time.
“When they feel that moment, you want them to continue that love of education,” Phillips says. “They take so much pride in themselves.”