Kent City — It’s 11:12 a.m. on a Thursday, and a special study hall session is wrapping up in Sofia Lopez’ classroom at Kent City High School. Briana Alvarez, a sophomore who joined the student body in January, is sitting with Lopez as she reviews the basic principles of genetics for a biology assignment.
In fact, Briana may already know the concepts covered in the lesson, but to pass her test she’ll need to articulate her knowledge in English instead of her native Spanish.
Lopez, the new English Language Learner interventionist at Kent City Middle and High School, helps students like Briana who need language support after moving to the U.S. from places like Mexico and Central America. A quarter of the student body at Kent City High School is Hispanic or Latino, according to MiSchool Data, and because of nearby job opportunities in agriculture, new students are enrolled every year.
A native of Mexico herself, Lopez moved to Grant, Michigan, when she was nearly 15 and entering her sophomore year of high school. Because she didn’t speak English when she started school, she was placed in ninth grade at Grant High School. She didn’t stay there for long.
“They put me behind, but I’m a very stubborn person and didn’t want to graduate late,” she recalls.
So she spent her evenings during her first months in the U.S. taking ESL classes, and soon her teachers agreed to let her assume sophomore status.
“There were days when I would cry because I had a test the next day and I didn’t understand what the teacher said in class, but somehow I did it.”
Three years later she graduated as class salutatorian and went on to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Michigan University.
In high school, Lopez says, she received little support as she navigated a new school and language at the same time. And though she was able to excel once she picked up English language skills, she loves having the chance to give ELL students in Kent City a more supportive experience.
“Now it’s full circle and I’m here helping students who just came from Mexico and need to learn English,” she says.
Students like Briana and nearly 80 others currently receive some level of English language support from Lopez at Kent City Middle and High School. Depending on each student’s progress in English, they may get regular check-ins to see how their grades are, or for those who need more help, she might sit next to them and help them with work while in class.
To determine who qualifies for support, all students whose families speak a language other than English at home take a standardized test called the WIDA. If a student scores below 4.8 on the test, they connect with Lopez at school. For those who’ve recently relocated to the U.S., they’ll likely see her every day as they get settled in their new school.
More Than Just a Support Person
When she’s not visiting them in their classrooms, Lopez is creating spaces like her special study hall period where students can feel comfortable and connect with peers from similar backgrounds.
“I have a lot of students who come to my classroom who are Hispanic and just like to be here. They don’t even qualify anymore for services, but they just like to hang out,” she says.
A yoga club Lopez started at the beginning of the school year at the high school quickly morphed into something different when nearly all of the attendees were native Spanish speakers. Now the group celebrates their cultural heritage and holidays by enjoying treats like Mexican soda, Rosca de Reyes and tamales.
‘Now it’s full circle and I’m here helping students who just came from Mexico and need to learn English.’— Sofia Lopez
Lopez also seeks to connect with parents of ELL students in culturally-appropriate ways. In January she helped host a first-of-its-kind ELL parent night that combined the much-loved Mexican loteria (BINGO) with a STEM presentation to draw more attendees. She led the presentation in Spanish so parents could be more engaged in what their students are learning.
More Than Academics
At the end of the day, Lopez cares about more than just her students’ academic success. She says her colleague, ELL teacher Barb Berry, once said that she basically has to be her students’ “school mom.”
“I’m pretty young, but I’ll use certain phrases like ‘¡Ándale!’ or one time when they were in the middle of math I heard them gossiping so I said something to them (in Spanish) and they laughed… so that really helps the relationships with the kids.”
And when Lopez was out sick on an early-release Friday in February, she was so worried about Briana that she checked her email to answer questions about the modified schedule. It turned out that Briana had, in fact, missed biology class that day, but thanks to her teacher’s special study hour the following week, she was able to catch up just fine.