At JLS Middle School, a global crossroads
At first 'it's really, really quiet' but, eventually, 'a magical transformation'
Lines of kids and parents stretched out the door last week when Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School celebrated the "Many Faces of JLS" with a potluck dinner and international singing and dancing in the school cafetorium.
For the nearly 40 percent of JLS students who speak a foreign language at home, it was a chance to share favorite dishes from their native countries — maybe even show up in traditional outfits.
Like many campuses in Palo Alto, JLS has become something of a global crossroads, with more than two dozen languages spoken among its 1,000 students.
At some schools — including Barron Park, Hoover and Juana Briones — nearly half, or more, of the children specify their home language as something other than English.
The trend is less pronounced at the northern end of town, where more than three-quarters of students on campuses like Addison and Duveneck report their home language as English.
The top foreign languages spoken in the homes of 39 percent of JLS students, in order, are Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Russian and Hebrew. Other students speak Tagalog, Lao, Arabic, Armenian, Farsi, Turkish, Hungarian and Tongan, among many other languages.
"The fact that we have so many bilingual students — or students approaching bilingualism — is really something to be celebrated," said Grant Althouse, a teacher who coordinates JLS's program for English learners.
"It's an amazing opportunity to go into the world speaking more than one language."
Teachers at JLS are long accustomed to welcoming international students at any point during the academic year.
In the past two weeks, new kids have arrived from Asia, Europe and South America.
"I just had a student from Brazil show up because they're on summer break," said Kelly Carnevale, who has taught English and social studies to English learners at JLS for the past four years. "The school years in different countries end at different times."
On his first day at JLS last week, a new English learner from Denmark joined Carnevale's class, where 19 other English learners — grouped in tables of four — were reading about West Africa from a textbook.
In that one class alone students represented Chile, China, Israel, Ivory Coast, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Sweden and Taiwan.
They had been placed in the English-learners program based on their results on the California English Language Development Test, given to all Palo Alto students who report their home language as something other than English.
Once deemed English-proficient, they will be moved into regular classrooms.
"It's his first day here, but they bring him right in," Carnevale said of the Danish boy.
"They're very supportive of each other. It was just four or five months ago that they didn't know anybody, didn't speak English. They know how it feels."
Carnevale uses a world-history textbook designed for English learners that she describes as "not quite as dense and without as many graphics."
"I also pull in a lot of my own materials and use strategies I've learned at various conferences and workshops.
"I pull together vocabulary — a big component is getting them to talk. I call on them; we go around a lot. They read aloud.
"I tell them at the beginning of the year that the point of this class is to become comfortable speaking in an academic context."
"In the first couple of weeks, it's really, really quiet, but they get better. I write what I want them to say on the board, and we all say it together. We'll read aloud, do simple plays."
Carnevale makes students laugh by trying to speak to them in their first languages, showing them she knows how difficult it is.
"I tell them all the time, 'If you dropped me in the middle of Korea, I'd have a lot of trouble.'
"I just tell them, 'It's OK. Keep trying.' And pretty soon the 'keep trying' turns into, 'OK, quiet down and get to work.
"It's kind of a magical transformation. Now they're very talkative."
She asks students to keep their work in the classroom so it remains available as a record of what they've done.
"When they go back and look at the first things they wrote in September, and what they're doing now, they really do surprise themselves," she said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.