Jennifer Martinez and Hector Alfaro are both sophomores at Basalt High School and both probably know more about language barriers than most kids their age.
Both are originally from El Salvador and know the blank stare when someone can’t understand their limited English. Both know the frustration that comes from living in a country that doesn’t speak the same language they grew up learning.
“At first, I had to learn a lot from gestures,” Alfaro said. “If you know at least a little English, it makes a huge difference when you try to communicate.”
“We can’t just speak Spanish all the time,” Martinez said. “If we do that, we’ll never learn English. Having this opportunity to learn English in school will help everything we try and do in this community.”
Alfaro and Martinez are both taking English Language Academy classes at the high school and have come to appreciate the chance to improve their English skills.
“It already has helped me in the way I speak,” Alfaro said. “It helps me express myself.”
Ticia Ingram and Tim McNulty teach within the English Language Academy program at Basalt, where students learn to speak English while building background knowledge about life in the United States.
One aspect Ingram learned from working with kids from other countries was that many of her assumptions about the kids were incorrect. She took many personal experiences for granted that she quickly realized were foreign to her students.
“These kids have such limited experiences in the U.S.,” Ingram said. “Most of their real-life experiences are very different than ours. We took some kids on a walk last year, just to get outside, and some kids said they had never hiked on a mountain before. The other day we were talking about fly-fishing and rainbow trout, and most of the kids had no idea what we were talking about.”
This school year, Basalt High has 16 “newcomers,” meaning kids who just moved to the United States and don’t speak English. Add those students to the 30 or so who were in the program last year, and you have a core of approximately 45 newcomer students.
In comparison, Aspen High School has two students considered non-English speaking.
At Basalt, there are newcomer kids from El Salvador, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and China.
Ingram estimated that 50 percent of the kids at Basalt High have been in, or currently are in, an English as a second language class.
On a recent field trip, McNulty was surprised to learn how something that seems so simple, like ordering a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, takes on new meaning when there’s a language barrier to overcome.
“It was fun to watch the kids learn to order their own food,” McNulty said. “I learned things that we need to work on, like teaching them how to deal with money as well as manners while waiting in line.”
Ingram teaches the Level 1 and 2 English Language Academy classes and gets the newcomers when they first arrive at the school. She’s always taught English but wanted to find other ways to ensure that her students were getting a solid language foundation. Ultimately, Ingram wants to see all of her students participating in mainstream classes at Basalt.
Each trip the students took into basic areas of life reinforced Ingram and McNulty’s assumptions that those experiences helped solidify some of the language they were learning.
The Basalt Library opened two hours early for the students on a recent trip. Many of the students received their first library cards. More than half of the students couldn’t believe they could check out books for free.
“The trip to the library was a great example of building background knowledge,” McNulty said. “Many of the students found books they could relate to that matched their English proficiency.”
They also were inspired by the Basalt community’s enthusiasm to help these kids acclimate to life in the U.S., so they began to look for funds to help cater more field trips and experiences.
The Aspen Thrift Shop is a 100 percent volunteer organization that donates money to more than 100 organizations every year. The volunteers get to vote on who gets grant money from the thrift shop.
When Ingram and Basalt High Principal Dave Schmid made a presentation to the Aspen Thrift Shop at a monthly meeting of volunteers for a grant, the response was overwhelming.
“The Basalt High presentation prompted one of the biggest reactions we’ve seen from our volunteers,” said Katherine Sand, chairwoman of the Thrift Shop grants committee. “It was amazing to see those instructors going beyond the scope of just teaching. They’re giving those kids a real cultural immersion. We were all incredibly impressed with their dedication and passion. I really believe they’ll make a big difference for those kids and their families.”
Another bonus from the meeting with the Aspen Thrift Shop came from one of the volunteers. Becky Steere is a private chef and a caterer in Aspen. After hearing the Basalt teachers’ situation, Steere offered to serve all the English Academy kids — and their families — a Thanksgiving meal in November.
“I was so moved by what they’re trying to accomplish,” Steere said. “It must be very difficult to integrate into an unfamiliar society. I really felt compelled to help in any way I could.”
Steere already has volunteers offering to help prepare and serve the dinners. The plan is to make traditional Thanksgiving fare while incorporating recipes from some of the Basalt teachers to help the students relate to the foods.
Steere is willing to take donations for the event. Anyone interested in helping with the Thanksgiving event can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ingram said the plan is to visit every family that has a student in the English Language Academy program and invite them to experience what Thanksgiving is all about.
“It’s going to be huge,” Ingram said. “We have around 45 families to invite.”
McNulty sees every extracurricular activity with the academy students as a potential learning situation.
“The goal is to help these kids learn English,” he said. “Teaching straight English is fine, but participating within our community is accelerating the process.”