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4 students from Puerto Rico adjust to new world in Middletown after hurricane forces move

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/19/19

Starting at a new school can be scary for any child. Will I be able to make friends? What if I get lost around the school? Will my classes be hard?

But four fifth-grade girls who recently finished …

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4 students from Puerto Rico adjust to new world in Middletown after hurricane forces move

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Starting at a new school can be scary for any child. Will I be able to make friends? What if I get lost around the school? Will my classes be hard?

But four fifth-grade girls who recently finished the year at Fink Elementary School had an added challenge — English wasn’t their native language.

Ilianyeliz Lugo Soto, Ekmarie Curet Torres, Janielys Moreno Zambrana and Fatima Torres Rodriguez moved to Pennsylvania after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Soto was at Fink during the 2017-18 school year. Rodriguez was in a different district and came to Middletown in January. Torres and Zambrana both started in August, said English as a Second Language teacher Anastasia Cerritelli.

While Soto and Rodriguez have been in the United States for about a year and a half, Torres and Zambrana have been here for less than a year.

“I felt nervous. I was sad I had to leave my family. It was hard for me, but I’m now happy. I’ve learned a lot of English, and I’m glad that I’m here,” Soto said.

Some of the girls said their families chose to move to Middletown because they have family members here.

“It didn’t destroy my house. I’m glad, but my family decided to come here because my aunt was here,” Soto said.

The girls are four of about 30 English Language Learners at Fink, and there are about 100 ELL students districtwide.

Scared, nervous because she didn’t know anybody — those were some of the things Torres was feeling during her first few days at Fink Elementary School.

Now, nothing is scary, she said.

Cerritelli remembered meeting Torres and her younger sister in the hall during an open house. She smiled at them.

“They smiled back, and they didn’t say a single word. You could tell that they wanted to, but you could tell that they did not know any English yet at all,” Cerritelli said.

It’s amazing to see how far the girls have come, she said, with their reading, writing and speaking skills.

“What I think none of these girls realize is fifth grade is hard for all fifth-graders. It wasn’t just hard for them, but to them, they knew they had a different obstacle. They had to not only learn the fifth-grade content, but they had to overcome the language barrier,” Cerritelli said.

When they went to school in Puerto Rico, classes were taught in Spanish, although they said they learned a little bit of English.

With classes being taught in English, classes such as English Language Arts and spelling were challenging, and the girls had to navigate differences between Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania, including weird food combinations such as pizza with onions and ranch dressing.

Cerritelli said the students owned the fact that they had to work hard to get good grades.

Spelling was a challenge, Torres said, but practicing at home and school helped. In the beginning, Soto said she spelled a lot words wrong.

“Now I can get the whole thing, 10 out of 10,” she said.

Cerritelli remembered one day when Zambrana came into her classroom, proud that she earned an “A” on her spelling test.

“That proud moment in her eyes, that was it from then. She just took off because they realized that their hard work is what will bring them success,” she said.

Cerritelli started as the ESL teacher in November. Step one was identifying the students’ English proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing because it can take anywhere from seven to 10 years to become proficient in English.

Cerritelli works with the students’ homeroom teachers. In the morning, all ELL students come into her classroom with their breakfast and spend an hour talking to each other, learning social language skills.

Her work depends on the students’ needs. Some of the children need to work on the basics such as the alphabet while others work on reading comprehension.

Her job isn’t teaching content. All of the students receive “push-in” instruction, or Cerritelli and instructional aide Christy Walker assisting in the classroom and working on any language needs.

With the fifth-graders heading to Middletown Area Middle School next year, Cerritelli’s goal was to strengthen the girls’ writing skills by writing in a journal for 20 minutes every day.

At first, the students would write a sentence. Now, the students are adding personal details to their journal entries.

The students said using the iPad to translate passages or words also helped.

Walker said in the beginning they used the iPads a lot, but now they’re using them less and only for specific words or phrases.

Zambrana tries not to use her iPad.

“Because I want to learn, and I want to learn how to spell the words,” she said.

Cerritelli tears up when asked if she has any advice for the girls as they transition to MAMS.

“They have just flourished. They’re going to do great things in this world. They know that we believe in them, and I just hope that they continue believing in themselves because they can do anything they set their mind to,” Cerritelli said.