When Orly asked me to share a story about a student, Yousef immediately came to mind. We opened ELLIS Preparatory Academy, an international public high school designed for over-aged, newly arrived students, in 2008. I can't quite remember when Yousef came to ELLIS that year, but I'll also never forget him as my student.
Being from the Arabic speaking country of Yemen, Yousef struggled with reading and writing early on in his time with me. He was not only learning to read and write in English, but also the alphabet itself, writing from left to right instead of right to left and being in a school environment for six hours a day. Furthermore, Yousef worked at his family's store at night, leaving him exhausted in the mornings. This is a common occurrence, particularly for the Yemeni male student community - working at their family’s store or business is part of their role to support their parents, brothers, sisters, etc. It’s an obligation that I saw many of our male Yemeni students fulfill - something that I continue to see in schools that I visit today, particularly in New York City. It’s also an obligation that many teachers don’t quite understand - these students don’t always have the option to not work. These students, like Yousef, often need extra time and support to help them improve their literacy skills and complete their education.
Years passed at ELLIS and Yousef had more and more family obligations both in New York and in Yemen. There were a few years where he was not always in school at the beginning of September because of family duties in Yemen. When he was in New York, he had to delicately balance work at his family store and his school schedule. While he wasn’t considered “SLIFE” by standard classifications, he did have gaps in his education because of his absences. Yet, Yousef never ceased to amaze me. He always showed up to school one way or another - whether he had just traveled thousands of miles back from a summer in Yemen or had just worked an overnight shift. And he always persevered with his educational goal of graduating with a high school diploma.
In my later years at ELLIS as a literacy coach, Yousef, needed to pass the English Regents. We started reading The Kite Runner together and using it to practice NY State Regents writing tasks. I bought him the book in Arabic so that we would read together at school in English, and he would read at home in Arabic. The native language support helped him comprehend the material, while the English support at school helped him develop fluency, vocabulary and make meaning of text with me there to support him. Pedagogical theories today prove that native language literacy supports English literacy development. Some may call using the same text in two languages translanguaging - whereby the student can use their whole language repertoire (in this case Arabic and English) to support their learning.
When Yousef finally passed the English Regents Exam, his final exam to graduate high school, he called me. At first I didn’t know who it was, but I knew to answer the phone. He said, “Miss, I passed.” I cried. I was so happy for him - his hard work had paid off. While Yousef took longer than some of his English Language Learner peers, who graduated in four years, he also had more extenuating circumstances than some of them. His grit and determination carried him to his goal. Many experts suggest creating flexible schedules for older SLIFE students - this goes against the mainstream education structures but is necessary for their development and academic achievement. Someone like Yousef, although not SLIFE, benefitted from a supportive environment that worked with his home circumstances. My hope in sharing Yousef’s story is that more teachers will understand that while there are English Language Learners who may not be considered SLIFE, they have circumstances that interrupt their learning. Not all of these circumstances are within their control, and our job as educators is to create a supportive environment to help them succeed.