English learners share their stories

Every school day just over 80,000 foreign-speaking students show up for school throughout Connecticut.

That’s one in seven students.

Nearly half of these students understand so little English they are considered English learners. That’s one in 14 students, and Connecticut has the largest gap in achievement in the country between its English learners and its English-speaking peers.

Bulkeley High School in Hartford has seen a steady influx of students who just moved to the country. Almost two-thirds of the students who attend the school have lived in Connecticut for less than 30 months and understand so little English they require extra support. As part of its recent exploration of issues surrounding English-language learners, the Mirror wanted to hear what these students feel is helping them.

Here are a few of their stories.

Most students wrote in their native language and later translated their stories into English, sometimes with the help of Google Translator.

Yoel Veras: ‘One day I notice that people understand what I say.’

Yoel Veras

Yoel moved to East Hartford from the Dominican Republican two years ago and says the Rosetta Stone audio program the district provided him helped him learn English. He now lives in Hartford and will be a junior when school starts in the fall. His favorite subject is math, and he wants to be a teacher when he grows up.

“I came to United States because the money from here is more money in my country Dominican Republic. Also my father wanted a better life for me so I came with him.

I came from Santiago, La Joya, Dominican Republic in June 13, 2015. … I came only with my father because my mother and my father are not together anymore. I think that the trip was very good because I see like 2 movie called: Batman vs. Superman, and Civil War.

I was worried about my mother because she would be stay in Dominican Republic with my siblings.

I feel good to be here because I meet new friends and I learn a lot. I start my first day of schools in East Hartford High School in 9 grade. In my first time in school I didn’t know English and it was difficult. I learned how to speak, read, and understand English like in 4 month because that only person that can help me with my homework didn’t speak Spanish. The first time he was trying to translate every word that I say and I feel sad for him. The second time that I visit him I was trying to speak in English and it was easier for him. From that day I was just trying to speak English until one day I notice that people understand what I say. Also, people were calling me to translate people that didn’t understand English and I was proud of me.”

Blu Nay Htoo: ‘It hard to find help when you don’t know the language.’

Blu Nay Htoo

When Blu moved to Hartford two years ago, Karen was the only language he understood. He says his teacher helped him by using pictures to teach him vocabulary. He will be a senior in the fall. His favorite subject is English, and he wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

“My first day of school was the worst day of school because I don’t even know anyone and I don’t know what to do. It is hard for me to do everything in school and find the classroom. It is hard to ask question because I don’t know anybody and I don’t understand the language. I was afraid because everything here was different from where I lived in Thailand. I was bored in class because I don’t have any friends to talk to and have anyone to sit with. It was the worst day of school. I don’t even where I have to eat but even if I know it I will not know how to get it and what should I take or not.

I feel like I not fit in because it hard to find help when you don’t know the language. I also feel like I’m a stranger to this country. Sometimes I met with some of students if they talk good things about me or not because I don’t understand the language. But my first week were still the same.

When my one month of the school almost end it was better but not much because I still don’t know the language. But I get too meet some of the good people so I have friends to talk too.

My favorite subject is English because the teacher is kind and good at teaching. Also she was my favorite teacher. She help me a lot with my English to good at speak and write in English. She help my vocabulary by showing the pictures. I feel better much better than before and get used to it.”

Anderson Elien: ‘I stay after school sometime trying to get more help in school because education is life’

Anderson Elien

Anderson moved to Hartford from Haiti three years ago, speaking only French Creole. He will be a senior when school starts in the fall. His favorite subjects are science and English. He credits his teachers and the library with helping him learn English. When he grows up he wants to be a lawyer or a teacher.

“My first day of school was sad because I didn’t know where is the classes and the bathroom. I didn’t know how to ask my teachers I wanna use the bathroom or go drink some water because I didn’t know English.

But after that I found someone who was helping me in the classes with my work because I didn’t speak English. Yet when the class is over I didn’t know where do I have to go. I didn’t know how to say it in English. I went to a girl bathroom but I didn’t know how to read in English so I just went there and sit down in I saw someone just open the door and his asking me a lot question in English but I didn’t understand what he was saying. I went outside I saw a lot people they was laugh at me… I was sad that day.

But I found someone who was teaching me how to speak English so I was feeling better. A teacher who impacted me was Ms. Cloutman. She taught art class. But she taught me more than that. She taught me about being respectful. For example, she taught me to call people by their names instead of “yo” or “hey you!” and how to be nice with other people. Because being respectful and being nice to other people that can help you in your life. And she allway telling me that if I wanna become a teacher to help other people that don’t know how to read write.

I join Ms. Knobloch and learning English at the library in Hartford. The program is very helpful. I like it we communicate with other people. My library in the school they are helping me a lot with English so if I know a lot English now is because of my school in the library. It important to me because it helps me with how to talk to other people.

I stay after school sometime trying to get more help in school because education is life. You can become president or lawyer or police or army but that is the only one thing that can help you is education. That is what my parent allway say I have to take my education seriously because without school life nothing. ”

Yolendi Guerrero: ‘In time, I lost the fear when speaking, and I understood.’

Yolendi Guerrero

Yolendi moved to Hartford five months ago from the Dominican Republic. She will be a sophomore when she starts school in the fall. She says her teachers are helping her gain confidence in speaking English.

“My first day at school was difficult because I did not know anyone. I was late for class because I got lost in school. I did not know anyone, over the weeks I got to know more people in each class.

I arrived at the school that knew nothing of English, but I try harder and understand several things and I speak a little, but I will continue to strive to learn much more.

I got a lot of help from my teacher, she is a good teacher helps the students and I got help from her. Another teacher who also helped me in English, to talk a little more and to lose the fear when speaking in English, was Miss Callous, although it was difficult to understand because I did not know English but in time, I lost the fear when speaking, and I understood.”

Alexander Cisnero: ‘Teachers who speak the same language and help you … makes it easier.’

Alexander spoke no English when he moved to Hartford from the Dominican Republic two years ago. He wants to be a weatherman when he grows up, so naturally science is his favorite subject. He will be a senior when school begins.

“I do not like talking in front of people who speak English because I feel ashamed and I think they will laugh at how I speak it. Teachers who speak the same language and help you to excel in English explaining the meaning in native language makes it easier.

When I get to meet with people who speak my language and they helped me understand the English. My brothers also continue to help me. I read books and find the definition of words that I do not know and work on the program (Middleburg interactive) has helped me. Listen to music has helped me learn the language.”

Joel Agbetossou: ‘Everyday after school I go to library to read the books and get in better in English.’

Joel Agbetossou

When Joel moved from Togo a year ago he only spoke French and Ewe. He says going to the library all the time has helped him the most. His favorite subject is math, and when he grows up he wants to be a police officer.

“Before I came to united of state I was in africa with my family. Went I was 4 year old my dad win visa to come to United State and my mom was so happy for him and he went. After 10 year went he get some money and he bring me to United of State. After one month in the country I went to Bulkeley High School.

My first day was very sad on my life. It was boring with not friends or best friends to help you out. I find a friend from Brazil but he do not speak in English like me too but he speaks little and me and him talk about what country we from and how many month we are in USA.

After 3 month in USA I get my library card and everyday after school I go to library to read the books and get in better in English so in 9 months I start to speak little English.”

Osman Raja Kamal: ‘Program[s] helped me a lot like socializing with people and learn more English.’

Osman took a few English classes in school in Malaysia before moving to Hartford almost two years ago, but he says he didn’t really know the language. He will be a senior when he starts school in the fall. His favorite subject is English and when he grows up he wants to open a restaurant or cafe.

Osman Raja Kamal

“We never thought of moving to United States until we got educational and economic problems. I did go to school in Malaysia. I was in my first year of high school. I did not do good enough in first year. I promised myself to try harder in second year until I knew that my mom had a neck cancer. My father is around 60 years old. So, he won’t be able support the families. In Malaysia, we had to pay school fees every months and workers get pay monthly only.

My family open a grocery store in the house and I knew it won’t able to pay up my mom surgery and the three children’s of schools fees. So, I decided to quit school and work. I gave up on my dream and goals. My first job was a carpenter. It was really hard because I have to carry all the heavy stuff and I never work that kind of jobs before. I’m not strong enough but somehow I get through everything.

After 2 years, my brother finished his high school and my sister finished her class as an seamstress but most importantly, my mom did beat her cancer. After working hard as carpenter for two years, I decided to take a little rest and spent more times with my family.

Since we are [UN Refugee Agency] card holder, the UN’s give my family a chance to go another country or we can refuse their offer and apply for citizenship and stay in Malaysia. We all decided to move to United States. My only reason for moving is to find a job and support my family. My sister will continue her high school and my family social case worker say that I can still continue my high school too. But I refuse it because I already gave up on school. I’m not interesting in school anymore.

My family convinces me in so many ways to go to school. In the end I accept their decision. So, I went school and I made couples of friend on my first day. It went pretty well. My first period was gym and I play soccer, from that I made a few more friends.

… I was really nervous at first because everything is strange to me. I had a hard time to interact with people because I’m not a socializing person.

In sophomore year, I joined a Spirit Horse Program. In that program I take care of the horse and clean their poop. I had a chance to make more friends and ride a horse for the first time. That program helped me a lot like socializing with people and learn more English. After the I get invited to National Honor Society and student council.

I felt proud of myself because they only choose 19 students. Because of that I decided to join more program in school. That is why I am in the library program.

Darvelis Reyes: ‘Some of the teachers helped me a lot and for that I will be grateful.’

Darvelis Reyes

(Darvelis moved to Hartford six months ago from the Dominican Republic. She will be a sophomore when she starts school in August. Her favorite subject in school is English and when she grows up she wants to be an actress.)

My first day in the school was not very easy for me because I did not have anyone who could help me. My experience that when I get to school I was lost because almost nobody helped me when I needed it most. Finally, one of them offered me his help and could help me. But some of the teachers helped me a lot and for that I will be grateful.

And after a while I met my friend who is a very good person. I could make friends, thank God.

Olwitch Parisse: ‘I used the computer to help me speak English more.’

Olwitch Parisse

(Olwitch moved to Hartford three years ago from Haiti. When he moved here he spoke no English – now his favorite subject in school is English. He is going to be a senior next year. He wants to be a mechanical Engineer when he grow up.)

‘I remember the first day the I was come to Bulkeley High School. Its was very terrible for me because I didn’t have any friends no body to talk to even when I have a question I can’t asked my teach. When I was need to go to the bathroom I couldn’t asked my teacher the permission to go. I was feel so isolated like I shouldn’t come to this country. Some time I even want to sleep school because at my school I wasn’t see no one who’s spoke my language which is french and Haitian Creole.

But thank God by time I start going to the Hartford Public Library I start obtain some vocabulary and verbs so I start speak English, and read some story books. At the Hartford Public library I used the computer to help me speak English more. I decide to speak English I come at the Hartford Public Library every day after school.”

Read more of The Mirror’s coverage of English learners here.

The Mirror’s project that is exploring ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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