ETHS program eases transition for Caribbean students

Paul Thissen

“Push the ‘control’ key as you hit the ‘s’ key” seems like a simple instruction for a high school student in a computer class. But for some recent Jamaican immigrants, this is about as confusing as directions get.

For them, the word “as” really means “after.”

This language gap prompted Evanston Township High School to create the Caribbean Academic Program 17 years ago, to serve the significant number of Jamaican immigrants living in Evanston. The program currently enrolls about 80 students.

Although Jamaica’s official language is English, most informal conversation there is conducted in English Creole. Both languages share about 90 percent of the same vocabulary, but some important differences can create communication difficulties.

“There are great areas for potential misunderstanding between people who think they’re understanding each other,” said Kathy Fischer, coordinator and founder of the program.

According to Fischer, verb tenses in English Creole differ from tenses in English. So, a teacher could be instructing a student to do something, and though the student understands the words, he thinks he is being informed about a past event.

But because they come from a country that officially speaks English, Jamaican students are ineligible for bilingual programs.

Because they cannot be put into bilingual education classes, the only other option for extra assistance is special education classes for students with learning disabilities. Many English Creole-speaking students can fail even learning disability tests because of language differences. For example, some tests show these students as having a very low mental age because they cannot properly identify parts of their own body — to them, “hand” means an arm and “foot” means a leg.

Before the CAP program at ETHS was created, the school classified Caribbean students into regular special education classes, Fischer said. A similar problem is manifesting in nearby Evanston/Skokie District 65, which ended its support program for English Creole speakers two years ago.

New York state, which has one of the largest Caribbean populations in the country, has formally included English Creole in its list of foreign languages for bilingual education purposes.

The ETHS program aims to prepare students to attend college, which 92 percent of students from the program do.

“It helps you with your grades,” ETHS junior Mellissa Hamil, a student in the CAP program and a native of Jamaica. “When you come here, teachers help you with whatever you need.”

A combination of formal classes and study halls make up the program. Two teachers and two teaching assistants teach the classes and lead the study halls.

“Being from a different background, you have people you can talk to who speak the same language, so you’re on the same level,” said ETHS senior Rita Green, a Jamaican immigrant in the program.

Hamil said she knows Jamaican immigrants who attend Sullivan High School in Chicago, and they have not received similar support.

Although a vast majority of students in the program are from Jamaica, Fischer said it can also help students from other former British colonies. Some current students are from Belize, and the program previously has worked with immigrants from the Bahamas, Guyana and Barbados. Students range in ability and experience with English, but most have been in the country for fewer than five years.

Caribbean students at ETHS said they are glad to have a program designed to help them adjust to America.

“It’s fun,” Green said. “They teach you American culture but with your own background.”