A Classroom Called America

On World of Nations Day each May at SanJose Elementary School, each classroom adopts one of the 20 nations represented by the school’s student population, and students bring their passports from one country to another. In just one day, students might travel through Burma, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine, Iraq and China, playing traditional games, celebrating the colorful attire of the Middle and Far East, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

“These children make me feel hopeful,” says Principal Paula Smith. “Sometimes when kids are new, Spanish-speaking or Arabic-speaking kids might stick together, but when they feel more comfortable, they acclimate themselves to children from other places. They work together.”

Not only does Smith see a true rainbow coalition in the 840 kids who attend San Jose Elementary School, students with backgrounds in at least 13 different languages, but she witnesses daily the incredible adaptability and curiosity of the brains of young children.

San Jose offers both an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program and a Dual Language program that teaches content equally in both English and Spanish. Some students even work through both programs. One Vietnamese child started in ESOL and once she’d become fluent in English, entered San Jose’s Dual Language program. Though still in elementary school, she’s already trilingual.

When Smith was new to the school four years ago, ESOL classes were “sheltered,” kept separate from students who were native speakers of English. Smith restructured the classes to blend ESOL and standard first grade. Some classes have students from seven or eight native languages who all work together to learn English. ESOL students were able to acclimate quickly without the pace of learning slowing down for standard first graders.

The explanation is simple, Smith says. “Children are sponges.”

She says it’s not uncommon to see “children completely unused to English” at the start of a school year in August “begin to blossom by December.”

The teachers at San Jose work to create “readable classrooms,” Smith says. “Best practices include building word banks, word walls, and thinking maps. Students are encouraged to read the room.” It’s a smaller and safer model of how they’ll one day have to read the world, and with group work, peer collaboration, and learning made fun, San Jose’s students can learn, this early in life, to love the process.

It’s also important, Smith points out, that kids aren’t just taught English or Spanish as skills, but taught content in each language they’re learning. Even in college-level standard writing pedagogy, debate has at times raged over whether to teach writing solely as a skill or to teach via content. It’s obvious nobody reads or communicates without listening or having something to say.

For example, San Jose’s kindergartners, second graders and fourth graders learn science entirely in Spanish, while first, third, and fifth graders learn science exclusively in English. Students learn math in Spanish the years they don’t learn science in Spanish and the same with English.

The result differs greatly from college students taking two courses in Spanish, French or German, but remembering very little of it five years later.

“After four years,” Smith says, “students are fluent in both Spanish and English—reading, writing and speaking—and they’ll have learned the traditional course content they would have learned in a different setting as well.”

Making such a sophisticated multicultural enterprise work requires a highly educated staff, often under-appreciated and always underpaid. When I ask Smith how many languages the school’s staff speaks, she says, “At least four,” then her eyes flit upward as she thinks. She quickly amends the statement. “English, Spanish, Burmese—we have about 115 Burmese students here. We have an Arabic translator, a Farsi translator. Oh, one Spanish translator also speaks German, and one or two of them also speak Portuguese.” Obviously, plenty of Florida counties don’t have as wide a mastery of language as the staff at this one Jacksonville elementary school.

In the 24 years Smith has worked in Duval County Public Schools, she’s rarely seen the level of family participation she sees at San Jose.

In fact, because San Jose offers educational opportunities that often trickle up to the adults in foreign-born and refugee families, sponsors a multitude of cultural event nights to which whole families are welcome, and—as San Jose is a Title I school, meaning a large number of children come from low-income families—grants free or reduced lunches to many of its students, San Jose Elementary has become a pillar of its community.

The school sponsors “field trips” to local Publix groceries to help shop, understand pricing, and work budgets. The activity is a standard of refugee education, and besides teaching math and accounting skills, also helps acculturate children and their families.

“The kids at this school,” Smith says with a proud smile, “get a great foundation to be global citizens, to be American citizens in a global world.”


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