CHAMPAIGN — When students come to U.S. schools from a school in another country, they take what they know in their first language and transfer that knowledge to English.
The same thing goes for students who speak English as their first language and study Spanish or French in school.
But what about students who can't read or write in their first language, have missed years of school in their home country or haven't learned subjects like math at the same rate as their U.S. peers?
That might result in a middle school student who doesn't know the alphabet, or can't do fractions because he or she doesn't know multiplication, said Jefferson Middle School teacher Michelle Chun, who teaches English as a second language.
"If (students) are missing the basics, it's like putting water in a jar with holes," Chun said.
The Champaign school district hopes to help some of its students in this situation when it starts its Newcomer Academy next year. The goal is to work intensively with students whose formal education has been interrupted for one reason or another, said Maria Alanis, Unit 4's director of ESL and bilingual education.
Some of the students the academy will serve are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or were born in different countries but are Congolese.
The Champaign school district has the highest downstate enrollment of such students, Alanis said, with 146 students. They speak Lingala, a dialect, but French is the language of instruction in the Congo, Alanis said. Many of these students are refugees and may have been born in refugee camps.
The Newcomer Academy may also serve Mayan students who are from Guatemala or the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Those students speak Q'anjob'al.
In many cases, they are pre-literate, which means their native spoken language is rarely written or read. Many newcomer students aren't familiar with the culture and expectations of a classroom in the United States. They may be two grades or more behind other students their age.
The school district has especially been serving older students with interrupted formal education, including fourth- and fifth-graders all the way through students in high school.
The Champaign school board approved in March a teacher and a teacher's assistant for the program.
Alanis will present more details to the board about the Newcomer Academy in May.
The idea is to give students access to the best education possible, she said. She expects the academy to serve fifth- through eighth-graders to start, because of problems with issuing credits to high school students.
It would offer intensive teaching in literacy and math, as well as help in social-emotional areas and in adjusting to the culture of a U.S. classroom.
For example, a student with interrupted formal education, when told to staple paper, might do so on the middle, right side of the papers, or not know what to do with a stapler at all.
Esther Im, an English as a second language teacher at Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet school, said they may face other social and cultural challenges, too.
For example, students from the Congo may look like their classmates, but their peers might not understand their difficulties with English.
They sometimes have trouble communicating with words, Im said, which can lead to frustration and even "unproductive behavior," like hitting, or an inability to tell their teachers they're having trouble.
"They don't know how to articulate, 'I need help,'" Im said.
Im said more than 20 students at Stratton are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Curriculums in the United States are different than those in the Congo, she said, and students learn math in different sequences there than they do here, she said.
In the upper grades, it can be difficult for students to understand topics in science, like the solar system and electricity.
"We face a double challenge," Im said, because students are learning both conversational English and the kind of English you use in an academic setting at the same time.
It can take a young student one to two years to grasp the former. Research shows — and she's observed — that it can take three to eight years for students to catch up on academic language.
Chun, who works at Jefferson, said middle school and high school can also be difficult for students with interrupted formal educations because those grade levels include a lot of writing. However, writing is the last step in language acquisition, Chun said.
If students are having trouble, they often avoid reading and writing, which may hinder them more.
Plus, it's difficult to find age-appropriate materials for a middle school student who doesn't know the alphabet, and chances are, such a student won't want to take a children's book to silent reading time during class, Chun said.
Many times, Congolese students who come to U.S. schools struggle because of problems with the educational system there, said an Urbana resident who used to be a teacher and professor in the Congo.
Philo Kabasele is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois who serves as a translator between the Champaign school districts and families who are originally from the Congo.
Kabasele was a high school teacher in the Congo, and also taught students to be teachers at a university there.
He said the Congo, as a country, is still in a time of war and an economic crisis.
Teachers there aren't paid enough to support themselves, he said, and so instead of planning lessons, they're looking for second jobs.
Parents are often in the same situation and don't have time to help their children with academics, Kabasele said, with a "catastrophic result."
Families also must pay for their students to attend school there, and if they can't pay, the students are kicked out until the families can pay.
If a student misses two weeks, he or she goes back to the classroom with no catch-up sessions. If those students finish the school year, they'll still have gaps in their educations. But there are instances when a student may miss an entire year of school, Kabasele said.
When students come to the U.S., "there is a big gap in education" as a result, he said.
Kabasele said the idea of a Newcomer Academy will help students fill those gaps and adapt to school in the United States.
"It would really help so many people," Kabasele said.
Because many students with interrupted formal education come to the school district with little or no school records, students and their parents would be interviewed to see if the students would do well in the academy. Top priority will be given to the students with the highest needs, Alanis said, and she expects it will have 15 students.
"We don't want a huge classroom," she said, adding that its students will need lots of one-on-one help.
A group Alanis is calling her "newcomer task force" is still developing criteria for entrance, as well as for transitioning students into English as a second language classrooms in other schools.
"This is not a place where students go forever," Alanis said. She envisions students spending one to three semesters there.
That task force will also work this summer, conducting interviews and talking to teachers about which students might benefit by starting the school year in the Newcomer Academy.
Kabasele said he believes the Newcomer Academy can help put students on the right path when coming to school for the first time in the U.S.
"From that level, they will be able to push forward and be successful in life," he said.