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As Dover immigrants struggle in pandemic, teacher goes outside the classroom to help

Andre Lamar
Dover Post

In the dining room, two students sit and work on laptops.

One is staring at the computer, while the other is calling for Simba, a slim white cat patrolling the kitchen. A third student around the corner is also on a computer, wearing a blue mask like the others.

Dover High School junior Enrique Sischajaj, 17, is an ESL student from Guatemala who’s getting help from his teacher, Carmen Crowley, in her home on Oct. 20.

The students are all Spanish-speaking immigrants at Dover High School. While most of their peers are learning virtually from home this semester, this trio is different. They’ve been meeting at the home of their ESL teacher, Carmen Crowley, four days out of the week for extra help learning English in that class, and getting help with their other subjects.

ESL is an acronym for English as a second language. The course gives immigrant students a chance to learn or improve their English language skills.

Every morning around 7, Crowley brings the students to her house, where she feeds them breakfast and lunch. She takes them home around 5 p.m.

The pandemic has made it tougher for high schoolers to learn the English language in a virtual setting, she said.

“I’m scared of the pandemic – it is what it is. But at the same time, I feel we're not in school and these students need so much support,” said Crowley, 56, of Dover. "They will not ask for help or support. They will remain quiet. When you talk to them, they look down. It’s cultural."

It’s normal to be insecure about struggling to learn English, she said. But if they’re shaky with the language, they’ll likely fail in their core subjects like math, social studies and science.

Crowley said she’s had to train her students how to use their school-issued laptops because keys like “enter,” “backspace,” “shift” and “caps lock” are in English.

ESL teacher Carmen Crowley (second from right), who teaches at Dover High School, has faithfully hosted three immigrant students at her Dover home during the pandemic this semester because they were struggling with virtual learning. From left: junior Angel Pereira, 17; senior Michelle Quintinella, 17; Crowley, 56; and junior Enrique Sischajaj, 17.

It has been important for her to work closely with three of her returning students because she’s needed to help them with translating the assignments from their other classes to English, something that’s more difficult to do remotely.

While she pushes her students to figure out assignments on their own, she knows it’s helpful to be there to help when they get stuck, she said.

Feeling disrespected

Michelle Quintinella, a senior, emigrated from Nicaragua a year ago. She said sometimes she gets treated rudely.

“Some people think because you’re an immigrant, you don’t deserve the same opportunity," Quintinella said via a translation by Crowley. "Because you don't speak the language, you don't deserve to graduate from high school.” 

“Maybe she doesn’t speak English, but she can speak French,” Crowley said.

Angel Pereira, a junior, emigrated from El Salvador two years ago. He said he played soccer for Dover High and noticed some Latinos who are documented immigrants were cruel to those who weren't. This caused him to get into fights, Pereira explained. He said he is a U.S. citizen.

Crowley migrated from Puerto Rico in her early 30s. She said she enjoys teaching immigrants because they’re very appreciative.

Quintinella agreed.

“She said, 'I'm not only a teacher; I’m a person who cares for them. I want the best for them,'” Quintinella said via a translation. Crowley took her on a trip to Port Mahon as a reward for working hard in school because the senior had never been to a river beach.

Crowley said she cares for her students as if they’re her own children.

Dover High School ESL students Michelle Quintinella (left), a senior from Nicaragua, and Angel Pereira, a junior from El Salvador, are using laptops at the home of their ESL teacher in Dover on Oct. 20.

Last school year, when Pereira's parents were visiting relatives in El Salvador and he got sick, she took him to the hospital.

Paul Dunford, director of instruction for Capital School District, said Crowley goes the extra mile to help students.

“When we're in school and she's there doing her thing with kids, she’s got the attention of every child in that room. She advocates for kids way beyond the classroom,” Dunford said.

Dunford said Crowley started a career fair tailored to Latino students. 

“She's a driving force for making sure that the Hispanic community here in Capital School District is fully engaged in all we have to offer,” he said.

Work or school?

Pereira, a junior, works in construction part time on the weekends. His dream is to earn a college degree and get a good job so he can support his relatives back home.

The challenge for many immigrant families is they’re more focused on making money than getting an education, Crowley said.

It’s hard for some immigrants to see the value in going to school when they can just get a job and immediately send money home, she said. This is especially true for undocumented immigrants because they’re not guaranteed they’ll get to stay in the country long enough to even graduate.

“Everybody has a choice,” Crowley said. “Angel decided to go to school, and I’m so proud of him because he's gonna make a difference in his life and the life of his family, and with being an example for others. When I’m not here anymore, you’re going to be able to do what I did for you for others."

Hybrid classes

Some Capital School District students will return to the classroom in November as part of the hybrid plan, a combination of in-person and online classes.

This week students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade will start coming back to school. Students in fifth through 12th grade will return the week of Nov. 30.

Dover High School junior Enrique Sischajaj, 17, is an ESL student from Guatemala who’s sitting on his laptop beside his ESL teacher, Carmen Crowley, in her home on Oct. 20.

Crowley said the hybrid model will be positive for her students because it will give them more opportunity to work with a teacher one-on-one. “I will tell you, 100% of my ESLs want to go to school,” she said.

At the end of the day, it’s tough for immigrants to learn English in Dover, let alone around the nation, Crowley said.

The ESL teacher said she wished she could’ve given other students one-on-one attention at her home, but it’s hard because some have conflicting schedules where they have to watch their younger siblings, or they’re working.

This fall she teamed up with Sischajaj, Quintinella and Pereira because they were returning students whom she noticed were doing poorly at the start of this semester. They would fail if she didn’t step in, she said.

Her dream is to start a community center in Dover where additional teachers could help immigrants with the language because it’s impossible for her to help every immigrant by herself.

Meanwhile, she’s thankful her three students have shown a lot of improvement since she began inviting them to her home.

“They're doing good, but they were doing bad. When school started in September, they weren't able to do the work without my support,” she said.

Crowley said it’s unreasonable to think her students will speak English as fluently as Americans by the time they graduate. And that’s not her goal.

“But they’ll be able to compete,” she said.