Sun Investigates

Going back to the basics as immigrant students struggle to learn the language

Monique Ngombo, 16, is one of many refugees arriving in Baltimore from far-flung countries, speaking a roster of diverse languages. That makes adapting much more difficult, as only a few people in the city speak her native language, Sango.

On that cold December afternoon, Monique Ngomba followed hundreds of students out the doors of Patterson High School until she stood, completely baffled, in front of a line of MTA buses.

It was time to go home, but she had no idea which bus to take.


The skills she had acquired over a childhood spent in crowded refugee camps in central Africa were of no use now. She was expert at harvesting and pounding yucca into meal, gathering firewood and taking care of children. Now, weeks after arriving in Baltimore, she was confronted by many mysteries: electricity, stoves and grocery stores. Even holding a pen was difficult.

She spent all day in an East Baltimore classroom, surrounded by the clatter of unintelligible languages. She spoke no English. She couldn't read or write, even in her own language of Sango. With the only interpreter who spoke that language somewhere across the city, she had little help in deciphering her new world. Each day, she felt humiliated. Her stomach burned.


Puzzling over the line of buses, she began to cry. Other students offered her bus passes and money, but that only confused her more.

Shortly before 4 p.m., a bus pulled up in front of her. She climbed on, if only to escape the scene she was making. Later, through a translator, she described the moment: "It was like an open door to the jungle."

It was like an open door to the jungle.

—  Monique Ngomba, Patterson student

Had she gotten on the right bus, she would have been home in half an hour. Instead, by early evening, as it grew dark and the temperature dropped, her family, caseworker and police were frantically searching for her across Baltimore.

Monique landed here because of chaos across the world. Her native country, the Central African Republic, is one of many torn by violence for years — without capturing much of the world's attention. Nearly half a million residents have fled from the fighting between militia groups, part of the unprecedented migration of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who are desperate to reach a safe place.

The crisis has put pressure on the United States, which accepts about 70,000 refugees annually, to do more. The Obama administration recently announced that it will raise the ceiling and let in 85,000 refugees next year and 100,000 refugees a year by 2017. This comes after 77,000 undocumented youths have made their way across the border with Mexico in the past two years, stoking a nationwide debate about the strain on resources.

Those coming to Maryland are from a diverse list of countries and speak a wide range of languages — from Amharic to Madi, Mam to Tigrinia. The majority are attracted by the state's science and technology jobs and are highly educated, according to Randy Capps, director of U.S. research programs at the Migration Policy Institute. But less-educated refugees and undocumented immigrants have also arrived, settling in the Baltimore area and Washington's suburbs. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees immigrants — who take desks in city schools and fill empty houses — as important to the city's economy, and local officials are helping them integrate.

Many of these immigrants, like Monique, find their way to East Baltimore's Patterson High School, which has one of the state's highest percentages of foreign-language students. These students, who have interrupted or little schooling, are often a puzzle to educators and may remain in culture shock for months. State and national statistics show they post the lowest pass rates on standardized tests — and are dropping out at a higher rate — than any other group.

I have been teaching for 15 years, and this has been the hardest.

—  Margot Harris, chair of Patterson's English as a Second Language program

"I have been teaching for 15 years, and this has been the hardest," Margot Harris, chair of Patterson's English as a Second Language program, said last spring.


To deal with the influx, Patterson and other city schools had to quickly add more teachers for those learning English, as well as translators and bilingual social workers. That has helped to drive the city's annual cost to teach immigrants to $16 million — offering a preview of the issues and costs that many other schools in Maryland and nationwide could soon confront.

Harris and her staff had just one or two semesters to teach Monique and the other newcomers English before they moved into mainstream classes. The teachers were in a desperate race. Somehow, they had to transform the illiterate child of an African farmer into an American teenager ready to pursue a high school diploma.

Alone on a cold night

When Monique disappeared on the bus that December night, her family called Chris Banzadio, a youth caseworker at the International Refugee Committee in Highlandtown. He rushed to Patterson and searched the long empty halls. By chance, one of Monique's teachers, Jill Warzer, was still at her desk.

They contacted the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore police, and by 8 p.m., an officer used a photo of Monique from the school database to send out a citywide alert. Warzer feared that someone might try to kidnap her.

Warzer thought about the calm, sturdy girl who still looked dazed by the world she had entered. Monique had a shy, pleasant manner, but her round face didn't register much expression. She often sat very still. Other students teased her, and Warzer knew she felt walled off without language, entirely alone. But looking into her eyes, so deep brown and full of searching, Warzer could see that she was trying to learn.

At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, Monique Ngomba was moved into mainstream classes at Patterson. She had arrived in the fall of 2014 from the Central African Republic speaking no English and illiterate in her own language. She was the only student at Patterson to speak Sango.

As with many arriving foreign students at Patterson, the teachers had received no transcript and little biographical information about Monique. They didn't know that warring factions in the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries, forced her family from their village when she was 5 years old. Her father raised cattle and grew yucca, peanuts, corn and beans, but the harvest was left behind. They had to walk 24 miles over the border to Chad.


Over the next 11 years, their extended family lived in mud huts that sometimes washed away in the rain, in three different refugee camps. They wanted to return home so badly that when — after eight years — they got a chance to move to the United States, they turned it down. They knew nothing about the United States and were frightened by the prospect of going to another country. Only when Monique's father realized that things would never improve in the Central African Republic did he accept the offer to emigrate.

Those first days at Patterson, Monique watched intently but rarely attempted to speak unless she was asked to repeat a word. Teachers quickly realized that she could not read or write in her own language — a problem facing about one-third of the school's 100 newcomers. These students, the newest arrivals, were kept together on the third floor until they learned enough English to survive in mainstream classes. At age 16, Monique was starting high school with the academic skill of a pre-kindergartner.

To keep her from getting lost on the city's bus system — something that had happened to other students — the school staff had devised an elaborate plan. They paired her with a Nepali girl who lived next door and could guide her back and forth. But that December afternoon, the Nepali girl had an after-school commitment. And Monique's brother, who acted as a backup, couldn't find her after the last bell rang, so he went home without her.

Hours later, as Monique's family enlisted the help of a friend with a car to search on their own, Warzer lamented the cultural divide that left the girl without the most basic words to seek help. In her family of nine, her brothers spoke the French they learned when the family could afford to send them to school. But in Monique's culture, educating a girl was less important.

Banzadio tried to reassure her family, but as the hours passed, he grew more worried. Finally, near midnight, Baltimore police got a call that a security guard at Reisterstown Road Plaza — about 14 miles from Patterson — had spotted someone who appeared to need help.

Near Modell's Sporting Goods, an officer found a girl curled into a ball, asleep on the sidewalk. It was 36 degrees.


The officer couldn't communicate with her, but when he suggested Monique get in his patrol car, she agreed. He called another officer on his shift, Khady Al-Quarishy, who was from Senegal, hoping she might speak the girl's language. Al-Quarishy tried French, her native language. Monique understood enough to tell the officer her name.

"I don't believe she knew where she lived," Al-Quarishy recalled later. "I told her, 'You are in good hands.'"

With her name, the officers connected Monique to the missing-person report and brought her to the sprawling apartment complex near Moravia Road and Sinclair Lane in Frankford, where hundreds of other immigrants live. She said later that she had wandered the streets, and was so scared she never even felt hungry. She believed she would never find her home, or see her family again.

A refuge at Patterson

After years in the Belom refugee camp, an arid land of scrubby trees, Monique and her family were now living off a four-lane road, down the street from a Giant supermarket and Burger King. But for Monique, as for other immigrant teens, it was the school that would be her portal to this new world. A rambling building with cloudy windows, patched linoleum floors, no air conditioning and only a hint of Wi-Fi, Patterson has been slated for demolition. Over the past 15 years, the school has lost nearly half its enrollment.

But in a city where teens can choose the high school they want to attend, hundreds of immigrants have flocked to Patterson because of its reputation for welcoming them. They looked past the wear and tear, seeing only educators who could help them navigate a new life. A third of the school's roughly 1,000 students are foreign-born. They say they love their school.

It is free, a blessing they rarely had in their own countries. They congregate on the third floor, where the classrooms are dedicated largely to teaching English to newcomers. The teachers are often their first link to understanding American culture.


So it was up to Harris to help Monique through an awkward conversation about hygiene, one not very different from those American parents have with their adolescents. When no one would sit next to Monique in class, Harris talked to her — and handed her a stick of deodorant. Harris had done this before for many of Patterson's immigrants, including some who misunderstood and applied the deodorant to their clothing.

It was only one of many issues Monique needed help with. Before coming to the United States, she had only seen electricity in a visit to a city. In the camps, she never had running water. Her family's food rations were often cut back to half-portions, and for years, they were always hungry. In Baltimore, they needed help finding ingredients for meals they were familiar with.

At school, Monique often turned to Mary Kinyoli, a Kenyan immigrant who was hired to be a liaison with families. Kinyoli couldn't speak Monique's language, but she spoke Swahili, English and other languages and seemed to be able to pick up cues.

Her desk became a refuge for the frightened. Monique was a frequent visitor, coming nearly every morning for months. In the camps, she had only used latrines, so when she needed to go to the bathroom, she would stop to see Kinyoli, who would take her. Many of the students like Monique are mocked or bullied, particularly in the bathrooms; in one case, Kinyoli said, boys stuffed a student's head into the toilet.

Monique's loneliness and social isolation were painful for her teachers to see. While some immigrant girls picked up on social cues — quickly learning to fit in by dressing in American clothes and curling their hair — Monique seemed slow to change. She didn't have a cellphone, either, an indispensable tool her classmates used for translating and socializing.

In one of Monique's classes, she sat in the first row against the wall of windows. At nearby desks were a boy from Bangladesh who spoke Bengali, a girl from the Angola who spoke Portuguese, and a boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who spoke French. Twenty-four different languages were spoken on the third floor. Because many students were from Central American countries, Spanish was the main language up and down the halls.


Warzer could see the strain on Monique.

Last winter and spring at Patterson, Monique Ngomba often stayed to herself, saying little in class as she struggled to grasp her new language and culture.

"She was really paying attention and trying to do the right thing," Warzer recalled. But after a few hours, Monique would sometimes just put her head down on her desk. By the middle of each week, she looked exhausted.

At lunch, when the other students left the room chattering with each other, Monique usually stayed behind with Warzer, who had become like a second mother to her. Monique would take her food to the back of the classroom, sit next to a computer and put on headphones. She had never worked on a computer before coming to Patterson, and she loved it. Warzer taught her how to use a program for elementary students that highlighted the words in a sentence while they were read aloud or sung.

Soon, Monique was learning songs, smiling and singing along in the back of the room, with no one but Warzer there to listen. The one she liked the most began:

"I am I, said I

"I am me, said me


"I am exactly who I am supposed to be."

She seemed confident in those moments, even if she didn't quite understand what she was singing.

But through the winter, Monique often seemed to be in a complete fog, a stage teachers describe as common for newcomers. Sitting around a table with three other students in late February, Monique was asked to read a simple picture book about the popular cartoon character Sponge Bob. Monique repeated each word after teacher Kimberly Russell said it, but later was unable to relate any of the words to the drawings Russell had made on cards. While other students used sign language or gestures to get points across, Monique usually sat silent, watching.

Being so silent in class is not uncommon for immigrant children. "You find this in children who have been traumatized or who have had severe interruptions in their schooling. There are some students who are selectively mute for years," said Sarah Shin, a professor and co-director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County master's degree program in teaching English as a second language.

Some Patterson teachers wondered whether Monique had a learning disability or prolonged culture shock, or had been through a traumatic event that was affecting her ability to learn.

They don't have personalities or a sense of humor. I see a lot of numb.

—  Kimberly Russell, Patterson teacher

Russell believed the impact of trauma sometimes dulled her students. "They don't have personalities or a sense of humor. I see a lot of numb."


As Monique sat silently, she had one thought — "I will not make it" — and considered quitting.

But an older brother who had gone to work to support the family argued vehemently that she should stay in school and try for a better future. He told Monique: "I don't have the fortune to go to school. But you, they give you the fortune."

Overwhelmed schools

In recent years, as Patterson has faced a wave of new immigrants — including those like Monique, who had low literacy levels — teachers redesigned their model to give students more time to learn English. In 2013, they decided to segregate the newcomers and teach English all day long, through a focus on mathematics, history and writing.

They allowed students to stay in the intensive English classes for one semester — or a school year at the most. As students gained more language skills, they would begin to take regular high school classes for most of the day, followed by a class to work on their English. Once students passed a test showing their written English and spoken English were sufficient, they could be mainstreamed. Patterson's teachers hope their method can be used in other city schools with high immigrant enrollments.

Because many newcomers had little education, Patterson's teachers also had to throw out some of their curriculum and go back to basics. They showed the new students how to hold a pencil. They taught them the sounds that letters make. They opened books and explained how to read: the page on the left first, then the page on the right. They taught the students that, in a book, a picture and the words below it are related.

To Russell, it felt like preschool. "Developmentally, that is where they are."


Patterson's teachers knew these students were in a race. They had a limited time to move from sounding out words to reading novels, from learning addition and subtraction to taking high school algebra. The teachers had to somehow compress eight years of education into one.

Even though the immigrant students in Maryland are given until age 21 to graduate from high school, teachers say that unforgiving timeline doesn't make sense. Many students leave school — statewide, 28 percent of students with limited English drop out, compared to 8 percent of the general population.

Their achievement on standardized tests is also significantly lower than that of other groups of students. For instance, 48 percent of those learning English pass the algebra test, compared to 88 percent of all others statewide.

For many immigrants, the push for an education can lead to heartbreak. Patterson principal Vance Benton said his foreign students believe that if they don't get an education, that would be the end of a meaningful life.

Benton's teachers aren't the only ones trying to find their way. Across Maryland and the nation, many high schools that never before had significant populations of immigrant students are grappling with their needs. Ten percent of the nation's public school students are in classes designated for those whose first language is not English.

Ninth-graders work independently with vocabulary cards in Kimberly Russell's English as a Second Language class.

In western Baltimore County, after 1,000 Burmese people arrived over a period of years, Lansdowne High School began enrolling dozens of foreign-born students. At Annapolis High School, 15 percent of the students are now in classes that teach English as a second language and nearly 30 percent are foreign-born. In Montgomery County, the schools took in 1,100 new immigrant students for the current school year, a typical figure in recent years.


Administrators all report seeing students with low literacy levels — along with lots of trauma — and across the nation a patchwork of approaches is being tried. Some localities offer bilingual education. Others set up immigrant-only high schools; Prince George's County opened two this fall.

Everyone involved agrees more resources are needed: more English teachers, more bilingual counselors, a better curriculum, as well as more training for mainstream teachers. But so far, they have been given limited resources.

In the last fiscal year, the federal government spent $737 million — about 2 percent of what it spends on K-12 education — to help school systems around the country educate students whose first language is not English. About $10 million of that funding goes to Maryland schools.

That leaves decisions on the bulk of the spending to local school officials, who must pick up the cost. As a result, services vary widely. Although Baltimore County has more immigrants who are learning English than the city, for example, the county spends $6.8 million yearly compared to the city's $16.8 million on such programs.

At the school level, administrators like Patterson's Benton say the high number of immigrant students isn't affecting academics for mainstream students. Teachers must gear lessons to a wider range of students, yet they have been doing that for years for other groups, including gifted and special-education students.

One improvised tactic Patterson teachers tried was weaving life lessons into academics. So while learning English, students worked on a household budget or acted out a courtroom scene.


Still, with Patterson's mix of languages and cultures, even the most experienced teacher couldn't anticipate the misunderstandings that sometimes occurred.

After a rash of teenage pregnancies among Latino girls, for example, the school brought in a Spanish-speaking teacher for five lessons in sex education. One Arabic-speaking student accidentally walked into one of those classes, realized she was in the wrong place and left — but not before grabbing one of the goody bags lined up on the side of the classroom. In her next class, she pulled out a condom, and, thinking it was a package of candy, opened it up and bit down on it.

In another incident, a teacher saw a puff of smoke coming from a student and suspected marijuana or another drug. Only after reprimanding the student did the teacher realize that it was a type of candy from Thailand.

Those were just the lighter moments of cultural confusion.

More difficult was dealing with some teens who had been working in fields and supporting families back home in Central America.

Because the teens were minors and had been caught crossing the border alone, immigration judges required them to attend school to have any chance of remaining in the United States. Now, they were behind desks with little interest in learning, because they had come here to work. Like many of the students, they knew little about appropriate behavior in a classroom. One Patterson teacher was bitten by a student, another heard two boys comment on the dimensions of her buttocks. Yet another's arm was grabbed by a student who sprayed kisses as he moved from her wrist to her neck.

‘I start to learn’

In mid-March, after four months of little progress, Monique made a breakthrough. She looked at the word "foot" and drew a picture of feet under it.

In the days that followed, single words, usually nouns, trickled out. When Monique was having trouble with the computer, she turned to Warzer in the middle of class and said her first full English sentence: "It is not working."

"She answered in English as clear as day," Warzer said, laughing. "Sometimes they listen, and all of a sudden start talking."

A class exercise gets Monique Ngomba and her classmates laughing and out of their seats at Patterson.

Through a translator, Monique explained, "Now, step by step, I start to learn."

Still, when Monique confronted words on a worksheet or a lesson taught by the teacher, she appeared lost most of the time. So when she realized that she could find the answers by peeking at material in her folder, one of her teachers wanted to celebrate. Technically, she was cheating. But that, in its own way, showed she at least understood where to find the answers. Now that she had emerged from the fog of culture shock, the teachers knew she was not learning-disabled.

The progress continued through the spring. In English class, she read a question asking for her age and answered it: 16. She could follow simple calculations in her math class, though she went blank when the lesson turned to angles, lines and points.


She also made efforts to conform socially, wearing makeup and braiding her hair.

Near the end of the school year, at an assembly, Warzer gave her the "most improved" certificate. As Monique walked to the front of the stage in the auditorium, classmates applauded. She gave her teacher a broad, dimpled smile. She didn't quite understand the significance of the certificate, but she knew it was something special.

Other students, meanwhile, were bounding ahead. Beside Monique sat immigrants who were gulping down new vocabulary every day and spitting it out the next. Harris couldn't always predict which students would make swift progress, but she knew that those who came with a solid education in their home country and supportive families were likely to do best.

Sisters from Syria, Mona Al halabi, left, and Fayza Al halabi, in English as a Second Language math class taught by Charlie Emerson.

Two well-educated Syrian sisters, Fayza and Mona Al halabi, arrived a few months after Monique, but they were ready to take on a new language. Within a couple of weeks, the older sister, Fayza, was communicating with a Spanish-speaking boy through a cellphone translation program. In a month, she was speaking English, even if that meant using nonstandard grammar and spouting unintelligible sentences.

She would demand her teacher's attention when she needed help. "Miss, Miss," she said, slapping her bare palm on the desk again and again to get the teacher's attention. "I don't understand. I don't understand."

Some immigrants shot ahead of the American-born students. Patterson's valedictorian in 2014 was Agut Odolla, an Ethiopian girl who, after witnessing the slaughter of many in her village, arrived in the middle of ninth grade with no English, and went on to a full four-year scholarship at McDaniel College. The valedictorian in 2015 was also a foreign student, a Latino boy, who worked tirelessly and got a scholarship to the University of Baltimore. In fact, last year, nine of the 16 top students in the senior class were foreign-born students.

New year, new hurdle

Over the summer, Monique continued in classes through the Refugee Youth Project, but her family's worsening finances weighed on her. They had to move to a smaller apartment, and, like so many of her peers at Patterson, she considered quitting school and going to work.

"I don't know how people live here," she said, crying.

I don't know how people live here.

—  Monique Ngomba, Patterson student

So far, only Monique's 22-year-old brother is working full time to support nine people; a second brother is getting job training. The federal government gives refugees a small amount of start-up money per person and the help of a caseworker for a limited time. If they falter, they can apply for public assistance. Refugees must pay back the U.S. government for their plane ticket to get here.

On the first day of the fall semester, Monique faced her next big hurdle: She discovered that she had been moved into mainstream classes. She would take only one class to improve her English; the majority of her day would be spent in regular classes.

During a biology class, as the teacher talked about concepts such as cell division, respiration and homeostasis, Monique tried to follow along. But she and other immigrant students were lost. Monique was trying to read the first sentence of a handout. The few words she got right were "in" and "the." She still couldn't read.

She is one of 150 immigrant students in Patterson who were pushed into mainstream classes after a year or less learning English. Most of the students in her biology class were in a similar situation, though almost all had a better grasp of the language.


One September day, biology teacher Kelly Hope urged students to finish a lab, but they were lagging behind. They had moved too slowly through the material, and Monique's table was the last to finish. The problem, Hope said, is the wide gap in the students' abilities — whether they are American or foreign-born. She hopes to give Monique and a few others simpler lessons and assignments.

Harris, who is in charge of English instruction for Patterson's immigrant students, has seen some make amazing academic gains when students are pushed hard, but she knows it's tough to make up for all Monique has missed. Many of these teens simply aren't ready.

"I don't like it," she said. "We don't have a way to transition them. We don't have an immigrant school. We can't teach bilingual education. Given our limited resources, I don't know what else to do."

Harris wishes she could give these kids more time. She doesn't know whether Monique will make it to graduation.

During the previous school year, Monique Ngomba's lack of English made it tough for her to socialize with other classmates. After avoiding the cafeteria as a newcomer, she now sits with others at lunch period.

But at least now, Monique was able to speak some English, her words coming out in simple, understandable sentences. On the first day of school, though she sometimes ended up on the wrong floor or at the wrong classroom, she still maneuvered through the crowded hallways with confidence.

Around her were 74 students who had arrived since July, including four this week, teens who had been where she was the year before: in culture shock, with no English and no friends. Like Narmin Al Eethawi from Iraq and Exel Estrada from Guatemala, many carried trauma from their pasts, but they had hope that now things might be different.


Monique had made her own leap. She no longer hid in Warzer's classroom at lunch. This school year, in the busy cafeteria, she found her place at a table with a few Spanish-speaking girls. Even if there wasn't a lot of conversation, she had discovered a new food she loved: meatballs. And she finally had someone to sit next to.

"They speak Spanish," Monique said, smiling, "and I speak English."