North Carolina Teacher Is Changing the Lives of Her ESL Students — and Their Families

"It's either sink or swim for them," Astrid Emily Francis tells PEOPLE. "Some of the kids get lost. It gets harder. They're all on their own."

A group of North Carolina parents walk into Irvin Elementary School in Concord, armed with homemade tamales, tacos, enchiladas, pozole and their children — little Allen and Briana, Alison and Alexander — in tow, for an all-Spanish-language Cinco de Mayo teacher appreciation party.

They may have given their children English names, but these parents struggle with English. Astrid Emily Francis, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, hopes the party feels welcoming; for some of the immigrant parents it will be the first time they have walked into the school. Because of the language barrier, coming to school can be intimidating, but tonight they’ll serve and eat with the teachers. They might even play Spanish B-I-N-G-O, and the parents will help the teachers find the right pictures on the cards.

Francis knows what that’s like for the more than 125 children at the school who speak Spanish at home with their families, but must learn in English at school. All of the parents are immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, and working long hours to put food on the table for their families. They don’t tend to read to the children or discuss what they are learning in school.

“It’s either sink or swim for them,” Francis tells PEOPLE. “Some of the kids get lost. It gets harder. They’re all on their own. The ones who don’t get any support from parents and don’t have the push to do it, the achievement gap gets wider and wider.”

So she invites the parents to social gatherings to help them feel comfortable at school and learn how to help their children succeed.

Astrid Emily Francis

Besides celebrating Hispanic culture, Francis teaches them what questions to ask their children after they’ve read a book, to help them with reading comprehension and to make sure they are really reading and not just flipping pages. She explains what reading levels are, and how to read their child’s report card. Parents who can’t make it, usually because they lack transportation, are offered a home visit.

She says she is aiming for a change in Latino culture, in which learning takes place only at school. “I don’t remember having a book at home,” Francis says of her childhood in Guatemala City. “I fight that here. There’s no reading at home. It’s just not in our culture. When you go home, you have to do the dishes, take care of your brother and sister.”

Astrid Emily Francis

Francis wants parents to participate more. “We teach here, you teach at home,” she tells parents. “We are all capable to teach our kids.”

But she knows that parents who speak little English don’t always feel capable.

“Sometimes parents feel guilty because they can’t read to their children in English,” she says. She gives parents permission to read to their child in their native language, and has won grants for a library of Spanish versions of popular books, such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, so kids can take books home for parents to read with them.

She understands the parental worry. She married an English-speaking American, and when her own son, David, now 16, was born, she decided not to teach him Spanish. She didn’t want him to struggle in school like she did, and thought he would have an easier time if he only learned English.

Astrid Emily Francis

But she has since changed her mind about bilingual education, and she’s teaching her 3-year-old daughter Hannah and two classrooms of kindergarteners how to speak both English and Spanish. “Now I know I don’t hinder my child by speaking in Spanish,” she says. And it’s better for parents read to their child in their native language than not at all.

She also teaches classroom teachers, many of whom were taught 20 or more years ago to keep their classrooms English-only so students would not get confused.

“If they don’t understand what’s going on in the classroom then they are not learning at all,” Francis says.

The children have soared. “Their confidence has gone up,” says Christina Herum, a fellow teacher. The students know they can go home and talk about school or ask a question of their Spanish-speaking parents. The parents have also gained confidence. “It has taught the parents not to be ashamed of their language, but to embrace it.”

Herum says before Francis invited parents to Spanish-language events, most immigrant parents didn’t attend school functions. “Hispanic parents coming out to school events has quadrupled. It makes the kids very proud. Our ESL kids are definitely growing in all areas.”

Astrid Emily Francis

Last year, Francis was singled out as Teacher of the Year for the county, and appointed as teacher liaison for the Cabarrus County Board of Education. At one of her first meetings, the board nearly scrapped their bilingual immersion program, but luckily she was present to save it. “I brought them the research,” she says, proving that bilingual education in the formative years is advantageous. Since then, school evaluations show that by third grade, the Hispanic students in the bilingual classes are doing better at reading than Hispanic students in traditional classes.

Francis immigrated to New York City from Guatemala City as a 15-year-old, knowing no English and having only a 6th grade education. She’d been held back several years for missing school days so often, sometimes because she had to watch her younger siblings, sometimes to help her mother sell fruit at the market. She knows what her students are experiencing at home. “I ask the kids, “Who cooks dinner?”’ she says. Often her students say their parents didn’t get home, perhaps working a second or third shift. She understands.

Astrid Emily Francis

“My mom was completely disengaged with my requirements for school,” she says. “It’s not because she didn’t want to. She had to work, she was a single parent of five kids.” Her mother worked as a housekeeper and babysitter, and sometimes took house-sitting jobs for days at a time. Francis took care of her younger siblings. Failing the U.S. history Regents exam, which she attempted in both Spanish and English, she could not get her high school diploma. She continued her job as a supermarket cashier, and split her earnings with her mother.

Three years later she passed the GED, and she still hangs that certificate in her classroom. “If it wasn’t for that, nothing else would have happened,” she says. She hopes it inspires the children. “Graduating high school or not shouldn’t be the end of your success,” she says. “There are opportunities.”

It was not easy. She had trouble passing the Praxis I test, a requirement to enroll in the college of education. It was only available in English, and she repeatedly failed. She was about to give up her dream of becoming a teacher when an advisor told her there was another way to become a teacher: get a bachelor’s degree in something other than education, and then earn a master’s degree. So she did. She now holds an undergraduate degree in Spanish and a master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language, and her diplomas are also mounted on the wall for the children to see. “I feel such empathy for my students,” Francis wrote in a blog post. “It never got easy for me. I’m not sure it ever does for ELL (English Language Learners) students. It’s hard to build confidence, and there’s so much failure.”

In fact, research has found that people whose native language is Spanish have a harder time learning English than people of other native languages. Francis herself finally mastered the language during her years as a teaching assistant. She sat at the back of the first grade class learning the various sounds each letter can make in English and proper English grammar along with 6-year-olds. “I was supposed to know more than the students – but I learned along with the first graders,” she says.

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