For the past few years, schools from Provincetown to Bourne have seen an uptick in the number of students who are classified as English Language Learners. Barnstable Public Schools has been at the epicenter of this increase, particularly in its high school.
"We're getting a bigger bump this year than we've had before," said Kathy Astrauckas, the school's director of English as a Second Language (ESL). "I think we ended last year with 140 ELL [English Language Learners] students here at the high school, and we're starting this year with 175. It's gone up quite a bit this year."
The increase has been comprised mostly of students immigrating from Brazil, and while the Cape has long been an immigration hub for the Brazilian community, the population is just now starting to be significantly reflected in the region's schools.
Teaching a high school ELL population requires a different approach than teaching an elementary school population. Many of the ways Barnstable has tried to address the needs of this older population are centered around making the students feel socially included in the school, Astraukas said. These include having morning announcements in Portuguese in addition to English, teaching the newcomer students about the school's extracurriculars, and just working to making them feel like they belong at Barnstable High School.
"The little kids will sing songs and do chants and dance around the room and do all the things that help kids engage in language learning," Astrauckas said. "Teenagers are very different in that way. You've got to close the door, you don't want anyone to see you from the hallway."
Barnstable High School's new population faces an additional challenge, in that many of the older students arriving are coming from rural areas of Brazil, where they are less likely to have had a formal education. This means the high school has to get them up to grade level, in addition to teaching a new language.
"So in general, we're getting more older students than younger students. Sixteen, seventeen years old seems very common," Astraukus said. "Sometimes they're coming with high school credits, sometimes they're not."
To address this growing need, the high school has created a program this year to teach newcomer Brazilian students Common Core subjects in their native Portuguese. Once they are brought up to speed in their own language, the school transitions them into classes that incorporate English. Simone Aguilera, a Barnstable High School teacher, leads the newcomer Language Arts class, where students have been learning how to write and structure critical essays.
"Today we were talking about the different aspects of writing compositions, and I think they're having a good time because we're talking about sports," Aguilera said, laughing. She also tries to incorporate aspects of Barnstable High School in her curriculum, so newcomers not only learn core subjects, but get better acquainted with the school's culture.
"I think it gives them peace of mind, where they can express themselves here," Aguilera said, adding that in more immersion-style English Language Learner classes, new students tend to stay quiet because they're not comfortable with the new language. "It gives them that social/emotional piece that they need, especially when they first arrive here."
Two newcomers who asked to be identified only by their first names, Ashley and KinJin, said they've been enjoying the Portuguese classe, which give them a chance to open up a bit more than they usually can during the school day. They both came to the United States four months ago, and had only been at Barnstable High School for a shiort while. They said having newcomer classes in Portuguese helped them to "learn how to write essays correctly," and that it also helped them make good decisions at their new school.
Ashley added that she’s already picked up one very helpful American phrase.
"Never say never," she said with a laugh.
The Brazilian school year ends in December, and Barnstable High School typically experiences another surge of new students at the start of January. Though their high school's population is particularly fast growing, school administrators believe other Cape schools may begin to see a similar population influx in the coming years.
This piece is Part 1 of a 2-part report on Barnstable High School's growing Brazilian population. Listen to part 2 here.