TAMPA — When they started their lives as elementary school students in the United States, they were no different from any of the other kids at Bellamy Elementary School.
It was a whole new world, one with challenges and new experiences. But, at Bellamy, many of the incoming students don’t speak a word of English.
All Hillsborough County public schools have non-English-speaking kids enter every year, but Bellamy is a little different. The school has students, parents, and staff from 37 different countries and they can speak about 19 different languages. The kids who enter Bellamy without much command of the English language might be scared, but it’s a challenge that ESOL Resources Director Monica Roehm understands.
“They are here to learn to speak English,” she said. “But they have to learn to absorb the language first. Some of them learn by a sort of sign language, but with so many diverse students we have to make sure they can blend in with all of the other kids. It takes some work, but we hope they aren’t scared when it gets started. It’s a scary experience to go in with a lot of kids who you don’t understand, but we have a great faculty and, eventually the kids start to fit in.”
Fourth-grader Jean Cruz, 10, said he is still trying to fit in. He is from Puerto Rico and speaks fluent English even though he, like many of the Bellamy kids, is shy and not as verbose as some of the others.
“I learned to copy what other kids were saying,” Jean said. “All of us are nervous but, since we didn’t speak the same language we had to learn it and it wasn’t easy.”
With so many Hispanic kids in Hillsborough County, Jean knew plenty of people who at least spoke some Spanish. But Huy Nguyen, 9, a third-grader from Vietnam, said he was extremely shy because he felt lost trying to figure out how to perform in school when he didn’t know how to communicate.
“All I knew how to do was copy what everybody else was doing,” Huy said. “I am shy anyway but I watched and tried to learn. I started learning English in kindergarten. I was always afraid the kids would make fun of me and I wanted to go back home, but they have been nice. I’m learning more every day.”
Bellamy has four teachers who are trained to help the Hispanic kids and another one to teach the six Vietnamese kids. Roehm said the school also uses the Rosetta Stone learning techniques.
No special treatment is given to the non-English-speaking students, she said.
Their English is always assessed and there are more than 200 kids out of more than 700 in the school that are part of a learning program helping them deal with learning and adapting to English.
Mind you, there are other social aspects that aren’t quite as easy. Making friends can be a challenge and it takes guts to simply walk up to another student and try to make friends, especially when they speak a different language.
“I figured they were going to make fun of me,” said Stephanie Cabrara, 11, from Venezuela. “When I started at Bellamy, I was scared. I thought they would laugh at me, but the first day of class I sat next to someone and said hi. The kid was from Cuba and was as scared as me. It made me happy and more comfortable.”
Jhoan Lora Sanchez, 11, is from the Dominican Republic, and he said it wasn’t as hard to make friends as he thought it might be.
“I just sat down at a table in the cafeteria and started to try to make friends,” he said. “I just started to talk to people and told them I wanted to be their friend, because I am a good friend. I learned the language and I can speak all kinds of languages now. Bellamy helped me a lot.”
“These kids are in a great school,” Roehm said. “They all get along and are learning about America and the culture, but the other kids in school are learning about their cultures. It’s a great experience.”