Today I said goodbye to my six English Language Learners (ELL) seniors. How strange it has been… we left for spring break expecting to see each other in a week. Nine weeks later, I’m trying to hold it together on a video call (with not much success) for our last day of distance learning class together.
These six students have had challenges in their lives that most of us can’t even imagine. I can’t go into details, but I will say that their childhoods in their home country (all six are from Honduras) were not like ours. Their stories and their perseverance have connected my heart to these beautiful young people for the past one, two, three, and even four years — plus summer schools — that I have had them as students.
Not only have they had to face the hardships of their childhoods, but when they moved to the United States, they encountered the additional obstacle of being unable to speak the language of the land. Imagine that. Pretend you move to a country and don’t speak the language. Some of them have only been in the U.S. for two or three years and came here without any English whatsoever. They have worked hard to learn it, but few of them in my experience have ever been able conquer the looming monster that stands between them and a high school diploma… state testing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am completely in favor of benchmark testing. Without it, what does a diploma mean? We have to have some level of standards for students to meet in order to give value to that little piece of paper. However, not every student has the same situation. Not everyone has been using the English language since they were infants.
After Coronavirus became a household word and we began distance learning in March, Florida eliminated the requirement to pass the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) or get a concordant score on the SAT or ACT. My six seniors, some or maybe all who might have had to try again after a preparatory summer school class, are now being issued their diplomas since they have met all their credit and GPA requirements.
Last week during a Zoom meeting I attended (unrelated to school or education), one participant seemed upset that seniors were being “handed a diploma” without meeting these requirements. I totally understood her opinion. But, I said, regardless of what you think about regular students receiving their diplomas without passing state tests, these ELL students have come so far in their reading and writing levels from not knowing ANY English when they moved here, and even if they might not be able to pass the test, all six of these particular students completely deserve the honor of graduating. She did not seem convinced, and luckily someone else changed the subject.
What I think people should understand is that we all get “breaks” in life. Have you ever gotten out of a speeding ticket? Did you ever wrong someone and that person forgave you? These six ELL students worked so hard to learn the language and succeed in all their classes despite the language barrier, and this year they got a well-deserved break during one of the scariest times for them in their lives, even considering their tough upbringing. It’s too bad that my hard-working ELL freshmen, sophomores, and juniors will most likely not have this rare opportunity.
Fighting tears throughout today’s video call, I told them to be brave, go into the world, and accomplish their dreams. I told them that they were given this opportunity, and they should not take it for granted. And I told them that I will always be here for them any time they need me.
“Don’t cry!” popped over the chat on the right side of the screen, giving me a good reason to laugh.
Then one by one, they turned on their video so I could see their beautiful faces one last time as their teacher. One boy introduced me to his little brother, who I will have in class next year. “I love you’s” abounded verbally and in chat. Then one by one, they were gone.
It was hard to log off the video call today. Although I didn’t get to hug them goodbye, I was so happy. I was happy that they have come to the end of this milestone in their lives. I was happy that I will be holding these six souls in my heart forever. But most of all, I was happy that, for once in their short lives, they finally got a reward that they truly deserve.