Courtesy Svetlana Mamedova
It’s nearing the end of the school day, when teachers and kids alike tend to be winding down, but Svetlana Mamedova’s drama class is going double-time. Not in the classroom; Mamedova has marched the kids out into the hall to do some warm-up, ice-breaking exercises. They’re passing an imaginary something around in a circle when the school’s principal, Martin O’Callaghan, and I stroll by, taking the tour. She invites us to join in. We walk on, but I duck back as soon as I can.
By then the class has returned to its room and plunged into rehearsal. The students are preparing their very first performances, which they have selected from an international collection of one-page micro-plays. Desale Wendie from Eritrea and Cristina Puric from Moldova are doing a read-through of “The Contrary Woman,” which seems to be set in the part of the world he comes from. They play husband and wife. Desale, who’s newer to the English language, must repeat many of his lines to get the pronunciation right. Christina seems more poised and familiar with the language, but it is she who balks at the end, shrinking shyly when the reconciled couple are supposed to take each other’s hands.
Mamedova is used to cajoling kids out of the double shells of adolescence and incapacity in English. “Remember,” she says with a flourish, “it’s drama!” One of the Vietnamese girls in the class chimes in: “It’s okay, it’s not real.” Christina and Desale clasp hands — one more little triumph on the road to English proficiency, and into the strange multinational mix that is America today.
Mamedova, tireless and ebullient, is an irresistible mama diva. Her main gig is as an ELL (“English language learning,” formerly “English as a second language”) teacher, and she clearly revels in the cosmopolitan milieu that comes with it: “I’m from Tajikistan, but my family was Russian and Turkoman, as multinational as you can get,” she say proudly. But her great passion is clearly the theater component of that learning. From modest beginnings, she will work these kids up to performing a Shakespeare play in June, as her classes do twice each year, each time with a suitably cross-cultural twist. This year it’s As You Like It. Before it was Twelfth Night, set in 18th century Vietnam and performed around Têt, with costumes ordered from Vietnam. French students — descendants of the former colonial power — played Viola and the “Duke of Hue,” and a Chinese student played the pirate Antonio. Mamedova shows photos. They are spectacular.
She and her students kept A Midsummer Night’s Dream in old Greece, but made the fairies Chinese and used Greek and classical Chinese music as accompaniment. They set Romeo and Juliet in Seattle, with Mexican Capulets and Somali “Mohameds” for the Montagues, a Vietnamese Mercutio, a Belarussian Juliet with Iranian father, and a Muslim marriage ceremony. “The students really related to that,” she says. After performing nearly all the comedies, she’s contemplating another tragedy. “Maybe Macbeth – they all know about witchcraft. Or Othello. It’s so close for them.” Will Desane and Christina be ready?
Svetlana Mamedova’s polyglot theater class is a classroom refuge to warm the heart of even the most jaded educational scrooge. But that refuge is a precarious one, thanks to the chronic uncertainty hanging over the school that contains it.
Over the past three decades, the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC), recently rechristened the Seattle World School, has been a refugee itself, bouncing around the district’s surplus buildings — an afterthought for a district beset by many other, seemingly larger and more urgent issues and interests. It was founded in 1980 at the old John Hay Elementary building on Queen Anne, in response to a flood of refugees arriving from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It moved the next year to the Sharples (now Aki Kurose Middle School) building in the Rainier Valley, which it shared with a last-resort program for students who had washed out of other high schools. In 2000 it moved back to the crumbling “Old Hay.”
"It has been frustrating that the district hasn’t been more decisive about [assuring the SBOC a permanent home]," says Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who lives across the street from Hay and remains an avid supporter of the program. "It’s been difficult for stability, and the natural growth and evolution of that program has been hampered by the uncertainty about space and leadership and curriculum."
Finally, in 2009, to the great relief of staff and supporters, the bilingual center moved to a central and location, the former Meany Middle School on the backside of Capitol Hill, that was supposed to be permanent. Then the legs fell out under that plan as well.
Underlying the quest for a permanent home is another long-deferred goal: to replace what has been a bilingual halfway house with a full multilingual high school. The Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, like the elementary BOCs scattered around the district, is intended to speedily transition newly arrived immigrants into the mainstream. Students attend a maximum of three semesters, getting English and dual-language instruction but no course credits, and then move on to the general middle and high schools. That’s easier done with elementary pupils, who learn new languages more readily and face less complex coursework and narrower disparities in educational background. The hurdles get higher in later years, and the results in Seattle are stark: Only about half the students transitioning through the SBOC eventually graduate.
The previous superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, recognized the problem and commissioned an audit of the district’s bilingual programs by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts. The findings, delivered in summer 2008, were devastating: “The [Great Cities] team found the Seattle schools’ strategic approach to teaching English language learners to be ad hoc, incoherent, and directionless. [The program] consists largely of a series of disconnected activities pulled together under the heading of ‘bilingual education’ that are actually the by-products of the school system’s long-standing site-based management approach to reform, its student assignment program, its collective bargaining agreement, its desegregation strategy, its generally low-expectations for English language learners, and the state’s requirements for testing in English.” Staffing was “skeletal,” training weak, and services widely scattered. Seattle’s was “one of the weakest such programs” the council had ever seen. "In some ways, the school district does not have a program at all."
Meanwhile, the need was growing: a new wave of refugees had begun arriving in the country, following the easing of post-9/11 restrictions, and the Seattle area was a magnet for them. This article is not the place to rehash the perennial argument over whether bilingual programs or English immersion serve immigrant kids better (though some commenters will likely choose to do so). The answer may depend on age, on individual students and their exposure outside of school, and on the quality of instruction. “How would you do if you were suddenly dropped in the middle of a classroom in China?” O’Callaghan likes to ask. “There’s all kinds of research that supports one and the other approach. Finding good, reliable, consistent research is a challenge.”
Much research of late points toward the “world school” model — a full-credit, graduation-granting school combining rigorous academics with native-language support. In theory, world schools can become magnets, attracting nonnative speakers who want to learn the languages they employ. At the least, continuity through the high school years means that those who’ve learned more English can help those just starting out.
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