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Yes, Students with Interrupted Formal Education Can Catch Up


Insiders in the field of educating English-language learners toss around a term that applies to a growing number of ELLs in this country. They are "students with interrupted formal education," or SIFE.

Lynne Ellingwood, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who frequently comments on this blog, shared with me a story published this week in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle about a SIFE student of hers who was born in the West African country of Togo and arrived in the United States without any formal schooling at about age 10. The student, Marius "Mimi" Kothor, is graduating from high school this month and has a full scholarship to the University of Rochester.

What's interesting to me about the story is how it took a very long time—until high school—for Kothor to find her educational stride. More than a year after her arrival, Ellingwood said she was shy and seemed depressed and some teachers suspected she had a learning disability. Over time, she was able to catch up with her peers and excelled as a student. She didn't have a learning disability.

So the lesson here seems to be that educators should be very careful not to jump to conclusions about the academic potential of SIFE students when they first arrive in this country. New York City is a school district with a lot of SIFE students that is attempting to make procedures more formal to screen these students for placement, which I wrote about this spring.

The Salt Lake City school district has a lot of such students. So do the New York City school district and the St. Paul, Minn., school district. So do schools in Sacramento, Calif., and Lewiston, Maine.

Virtually any community that is a common destination for refugees receives a lot of students who have had little or no schooling. A cutting-edge area of this field is for educators to figure out how best to support them academically.


Mimi Kothor was also able to attend a parochial school in an urban district and receive ESOL services. I had small groups of students and I grouped them by age. She was placed in age appropriate classrooms and given service for ESOL and we eventually were able to get an expert for a short time in ESOL students and math. Very hands on. Still gaps were filled in with difficulty. Math was harder than reading and writing for a long time. Studying because of lack of experience and reading skill was tough. Many teachers helped her along the way. A big key was having a safe small school, model peers, and teachers willing to individualize and help. A lot of reflection and agonizing at times. Especially over math because many people see that as a sign of a learning disability in ESOL students. She passed the Math B exam on her second try and is struggling through pre-calculus in her senior year though. Most American students can't do that.

Thanks for sharing a success story. It's also a great reminder for us not to be hasty in labeling ELLs w/ a learning disability.

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