01/16/07 — Breaking down barriers

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Breaking down barriers

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 16, 2007 1:54 PM

The number of Chinese-speaking students in Wayne County Public Schools has virtually doubled over the past year, prompting some teachers to study the language to better communicate with their families.

Hope Meyerhoeffer, director of the English-as-a-Second-Language programs for the school system, attributed some of the influx to local companies hiring employees from Chinese-speaking countries.

Last year, the school district had about 75 Chinese students, as compared with an estimated 150 at present, she said. The growth has been rather sporadic, primarily in the area that feeds into Greenwood Middle School and the northeast part of the county.

One important fact to note, she said, is that the students do not speak any English and neither do their parents.

"A lot of times they will bring someone with them when they first come to register" to help translate, she said.

The situation prompted officials to consider an educational plan for themselves.

"Some of the teachers said, 'We want a Chinese class,'" Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said, explaining it would help with learning the language as well as gaining a better cultural understanding.

Ten teachers from the school system took the class, as did Mrs. Meyerhoeffer and her secretary Martha Walters, since a number of families show up at the central office with questions.

Carlos Cotto, occupational education director at Wayne Community College, procured Hei Lam Tsui, a student at the college, to teach the educators. They met weekly from September into December, completing 30 hours of study.

"We spent a lot of time on the culture and of course on teaching us greetings and select phrases that would help us communicate to get the information that we needed from (students)," Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said. "We learned numbers and other basics, and to do some of the phonemic awareness of the alphabet."

Although it was admittedly a lot of fun learning a new language, Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said it was also challenging.

"It's very difficult to get the accent marks correct, to hear the letter sounds," she said. "We had to get her to spell it for us so we could hear it. It's probably one of the most difficult languages that I know."

There are two forms of Chinese language that are primarily spoken, she said -- Mandarin and Cantonese. The local educators studied Cantonese.

"We were told if you knew Cantonese, you could do Mandarin," she explained.

Ideally, the educators could have spent even more time studying the foreign language since it is difficult to learn it all in 30 hours, Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said.

"But it's a good start for the teachers to learn the language and it builds a bridge" between school and home, she said.

It has particularly been a confidence-builder for the teachers with Chinese-speaking families in their midst.

"Those teachers when they finished the class, felt more at ease," she said. "It wasn't a scary feeling anymore like when you approach parents and you just look at them. It makes it difficult."

Yanet Cast, an ESL teacher at Tommy's Road Elementary also assigned to Rosewood Elementary, can attest to that.

Originally from Venezuela, she came to Wayne County seven years ago as a teacher and has since become an American citizen. Two years ago, she took a Chinese class.

"It helped to communicate a little bit with parents and we were able to send little notes home," she said. "Also, with the children who didn't know any English at all, we could communicate, and it did feel a little more comfortable."

Sometimes the students might laugh at her pronunciation, she said, "But they know you're trying. They really value that."

The response from both students and parents has been particularly rewarding, she said.

"Knowing that you could speak their language, (children) smile immediately," she said, while the adults have told her "they didn't expect there to be staff members in the school who could communicate with them."