Public services such as police, fire and schools, are adapting to meet the needs of people who speak little or no English.
On a sunny weekday morning upstairs in the Coolidge School building, an elderly Asian man haltingly read from a worksheet while his classmates looked on with interest.
“One thing I like about the United States is freedom and democracy,” said the man, helped along by instructor Dee Bent.
Once the man finished, Bent congratulated him and showed the beginners’ English class how the man had been translating from Chinese characters to English.
“Good job!” said a few of his classmates and the rest clapped for the older man, who beamed.
Being an immigrant isn’t easy. Learning a new language can be difficult, whatever your age, and the culture shock can be isolating and hard to adjust to.
Although the vast majority of Maynard residents speak English, there is a significant percentage of those with less-than-perfect English skills. The U.S. Census report from 2000, the most recent data available, reports 1,102 out of Maynard’s 9,715 residents age 5 or older speak a language other than English.
About 29 percent, or 322 people, say they speak English less than “very well.”
Armed with a mixture of state, federal and private resources, Maynard is helping new immigrants’ lives get a little easier as they acclimate to the United States.Emergency services
The Maynard Police and Fire departments, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board, have contracted with Qwest/NetworkOmni for interpretation services. The company provides what it calls over-the-phone interpretation — a translation service emergency dispatchers can use if a call comes in from someone who isn’t speaking English.
The languages available for translation range from French and Spanish to less-common languages such as Welsh and Gujarati, a language spoken in India and Pakistan, among other places.
According to Police Chief James Corcoran, the software is free and relatively simple to use:
“We hit a transfer key and talk to a live operator. We go from there,” he said.
Most of the non-English speakers who call in speak Spanish or Portuguese as their primary language, said Corcoran.
Corcoran said he was not sure if his department has ever used the translation service. The police department does have one officer who speaks fluent Portuguese and the department will call on members of the community to translate if needed, he said.
Police run up against language barriers a couple times a month, Corcoran said.
“We do the best with what we have,” he said, noting most language problems tend to work themselves out.
The police department can also reach out to other area departments for translation assistance if needed, said Corcoran.
“[Our] procedure is to try to find someone who can help you out. Ninety-nine percent of the time, someone [at the scene] can understand some English,” said Fire Chief Stephen Kulik in an interview.
Kulik said with medical issues, Maynard’s firefighters are usually able to make do with gestures and hand-signals.
“We go with signs and symptoms and we can usually do a pretty accurate job there,” he said.
The fire department currently doesn’t have any firefighters who speak a language other than English.
“I certainly do look at that when I review candidates,” said Kulik. “It’s always an incredible plus.”Maynard schools
Amadee Meyer teaches English as a second language (ESL) at Green Meadow Elementary School and Fowler Middle School. For the 2007-2008 school year, Meyer said, she has 23 students from first- to eighth-grade in the ESL program.
Many of her students are from what she calls “the big three”: Puerto Rico, Haiti and Brazil.
Children present a special challenge for an ESL instructor. Although it is relatively easy for children to pick up the chatter of the playground, reading and writing skills are a different matter, said Meyer.
Some teachers see children speaking English to their classmates but then see those same students struggle with their reading and writing skills. The teachers may assume the student has a learning disability and move the student into special education, when in reality the student is struggling because of a language barrier, not a learning disability, said Meyer.This scenario is “one of my biggest struggles,” said Meyer.
Meyer said the most successful ESL students are those who have been educated well in their first language up to through fourth-grade. If by that point the child can read and write in their native toungue, it makes tackling English easier, she said.
For some students, even if they were born in the United States, kindergarten is their first exposure to English, said Meyer.
The research says it takes about five to seven years for a student to become English proficient, in general, said Meyer. But for a student who enters kindergarten without any previous ability in reading or writing, it can take longer — seven to 10 years, she said.
Students facing that delay may even have difficulty on 10th grade English language arts MCAS, said Meyer.
Kids can get lost in the shuffle — sometimes they move and are lost in the system, said Meyer. Other times they bounce back and forth between the United States and their home country, further complicating learning.
But there are success stories. As an example, Meyer said she had a Haitian student enter the third grade with no formal schooling. By the end of the school year, however, he had learned so much he was starting to read English at a fourth-grade level.“The students do get a lot of support,” said Meyer.
Thanks to a grant from the Maynard Education Foundation, Meyer now has about 10 iPods that she plans to lend out to students so they can practice their listening and speaking skills at home.The facts
According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Education from the 2006-2007 school year, 4.9 percent of students in Maynard do not speak English as a first language. A smaller number, 2.2 percent, are classified as “limited English proficient,” which gives them access to English learning resources.
Jill Greene, director of student services for the school district, said in an interview the state provides guidelines for teaching students who are termed “limited English proficient” or LEP.
“When students first come to the district or there’s a question about their English proficiency, we’ll do an assessment and determine if they fall into this LEP category,” she said.
There are “guidelines in terms of what are the skills the students need to be working on as well as in terms of their listening, speaking, reading and writing [skills],” said Greene. As the students move through the system, they are tracked and evaluated.
“It’s like sheltered English immersion. You learn your content as you’re learning English. They get support with both,” said Greene.Adult education
The Hudson/Maynard Adult Learning Center holds English classes during the school year at the Coolidge School building and Town Hall on weekday mornings and evenings. There are three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced.
The classes are free and are funded by grants from the state Department of Education as well as private donations from organizations like Hudson Savings Bank, Middlesex Savings Bank and the Hudson Library.
The students come from all over the region, not just Maynard. There are currently about 250 students, the absolute maximum capacity, said Center Director Karl Baldrate.
“We have a waiting list of about 200 names. Some names have been on [the list] for over two years,” said Baldrate.
“We run a concurrent curriculum and most of the students will sign in at the beginner’s level and they follow the program all the way through,” said Baldrate.
“Throughout the program, you see change in the student, as their ability to communicate gets better. They’re feeling better about themselves, about their place in the community,” said Baldrate.
Many students go on to further education, said Baldrate, getting their GED or going to community college.
On a recent Wednesday morning, the advanced class, which usually meets in Town Hall, met instead at Coolidge School to use the building’s computer labs.
Paddi Gerondeau, the advanced class instructor, walked around the computer lab as her students used software from Rosetta Stone to test their English.
For one of the exercises, the students would listen to a phrase in English accompanied by a picture, like “This animal walks and swims but never flies,” accompanied by a picture of a polar bear. The students then had to type out the phrase correctly or click and drag the correct word from a list of possible answers and put the words in the right order.
“Make sure your subject agrees with your verb tense,” Gerondeau advised one of her students.
The classroom was colorfully decorated with paper cutouts of fall leaves, maps and pictures from recent Red Sox victories over the Los Angeles Angels.
Hue Thi Vo, 21, is originally from Vietnam and came to the United States about a year ago to live with her mother in Worcester. The two work at Pro Nails salon in Stow.
Vo was in the beginners’ class and spoke halting but clear English. She said since signing up for the classes two months ago, her English has improved.
Alla Ohorilko, 39, and her husband, Vasyl, were in the advanced class. She and her husband emigrated from Ukraine about five years ago, she said.
Vasyl was a circus acrobat, said Alla, and they originally started working in Canada before getting work in the United States. Vasyl now teaches gymnastics and Alla is a clinical assistant at a dental practice in Needham. They live in Boxborough.
The classes are “very helpful to me,” said Alla. She said she now writes better and speaks better English than ever before.
All three levels joined together in the main lobby area for hot chocolate, snacks and tea. Many greeted each other enthusiastically in English. There were a few pockets of Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
The day before, the beginners played the intermediates in baseball on the field outside Coolidge. Students gathered around the pictures instructors Joyce Rossingol and Dee Bent passed around and a few remarked, “Next time, soccer!”
Meghan Kelly can be reached at 978-371-5758 or email@example.com.