Monday, January 26, 2009

Hispanic immigrant student struggled to reach the top

Grand Prairie teen beat language barrier to rise to top of his class
By STELLA M. CHÁVEZ / The Dallas Morning News January 26, 2009

Knowing only Spanish wasn't the only obstacle Ruben Jauregui faced five years ago when he left Mexico to start a new life in Texas. He had to put up with Latino classmates who ridiculed him for wanting to speak English.

Ruben, now a 17-year-old senior at Grand Prairie High School, didn't let the teasing stop him. He mastered English, rose to No. 1 in his class and is deciding whether to accept a full scholarship from prestigious Rice University or ultraprestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I think whatever you want to do is possible, and if you work hard, you can do it," he said, sitting in front a computer in the school library. "It's about believing in yourself."

Ruben's transition from native Spanish speaker to stellar student provides solid clues to one of the most vexing mysteries in Texas public education: How do schools teach English to Spanish-speaking kids to prepare them for success? And what should the child and his family do to support the school's curriculum?

More than half a million public school students in Texas carry the "limited English proficient" label. The vast majority are Latino. And many of them understand little of what they hear in class from their English-speaking teachers.

Like many immigrants, Ruben's father came to this country in search of better wages and job opportunities. He would later become a U.S. citizen. In 2003, he arranged for Ruben, his daughter and Ruben's mother to come to the U.S. Two summers ago, Ruben and his sister also became U.S. citizens.

Tabatha Sustaita, Ruben's seventh-grade ESL teacher, remembers the day he walked into her classroom during a school tour. He looked around the room, soaking in the glossy posters on the wall.

"Excuse me, what class is this?" he asked in Spanish.

"We are going to learn how to read. We are going to teach you how to write and speak in English," Sustaita responded.

Something was different about Ruben, she thought. Usually, students peeked inside the room during a tour, but they didn't linger.

Starting in ESL

Ruben was placed in level one of the English as Second Language program, or ESL, at Kennedy Middle School. He was too old for bilingual education classes in elementary school, where teachers speak mostly Spanish at first and gradually transition their students to English over the years.

As a seventh-grader, Ruben would have an ESL teacher for reading, writing, math, technology and physical education. ESL students learn survival English such as: Where's the restroom? May I sharpen the pencil? They learn basic English grammar and about American traditions such as Thanksgiving or Halloween.

Ruben quickly showed progress. By the end of the six weeks, he had advanced to a level two of ESL. In fact, he did so well that teachers placed him in regular science and social studies classes alongside native English speakers. Usually, ESL newcomers remain at level one for their entire first year, Sustaita said.

As his teachers point out, Ruben is driven and a self-starter who doesn't let obstacles get in his way. Along the way, teachers and advisers who took notice of his ambition and talent challenged him and didn't let him falter.

"I would give him something different to do," Sustaita said. "I would ask him questions orally or I would give him a more challenging worksheet and if he had problems, he would ask me."

By eighth grade, Ruben had moved up to Level 3 ESL. He audited a regular English class, all taught in English. It seemed he was ready, Sustaita recalled.

"After about a month or two, that teacher came up to me and said, 'He's doing just as good as those kids who have been born and raised here,' " she said.

Ruben encountered difficulties, Sustaita said, but he didn't mind raising his hand and asking questions.

Work ethic

Ruben lives with his mother and sister in a modest home on a street named Winners Row. His parents are separated, but he stays in close contact with his father, a swimming pool repairman also named Ruben Jauregui (pronounced how-reh-gee). He takes his son to work with him every summer to instill a strong work ethic.

Ruben said he doesn't want a career in the construction business, and he has a message to other immigrant children who might believe a blue-collar job is the only possible path.

"I respect his job, but I don't want to do that," he said. "You don't have to do what your parents do."

Ruben's mother, Juana del Rosio Jauregui, said her son has always been interested in learning. When he was younger, she said, he showed interest in reading her magazines at home. She never had to tell him to do his homework because Ruben seemed to understand that homework is necessary for good grades and success.

Ruben's father, speculating about the reasons for his son's academic success, had no easy answers. He said Ruben reads a lot – even when others around him are playing video games – and that he retains what he learns. He also is not afraid to take challenging aptitude tests even though he risks failure.

"Maybe it's hereditary, but a lot of it also has to do with how he approaches school," he said. "He enjoys it."

The family speaks Spanish at home. But to improve his English, Ruben used a bilingual dictionary to look up words when he read books in English. He watched cartoons in English and would reread school lessons several times until he understood them.

"Practice is the key for proficiency," he wrote in an essay for one of his college applications.

Ruben rejected the idea that learning to read, write and speak well in English somehow amounted to a rejection of his Mexican culture – the allegation hurled at him by some Latino classmates.

In fact, Ruben continued to excel in Spanish. As an eighth grader, he scored the highest possible grade on the Advanced Placement test in Spanish, which most students take as juniors or seniors.

Debbie Midkiff, Grand Prairie ISD's director of advanced academics, said it might not seem unusual for a native Spanish-speaker to ace a Spanish test. But she provides this analogy:

"It's like we grew up knowing English, too, but we couldn't all take the AP English test in the eighth grade," she said. "They have to be proficient in speaking, writing and reading. ... It's very, very hard."

Debbie Dobbs Vernon, who teaches English and Ruben's academic decathlon class, said Ruben is modest about his accomplishments.

But everyone who knows him likes to brag for him.

"I knew he just had that inner drive," she said. "He has literally poured all his effort into education."

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