Raising the Bar for ESL Students at Pierson

Posted on 02 May 2012

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Above: Pierson Senior Ronald Aucapina and his award.

By Claire Walla


Last month, Pierson High School senior Ronald Aucapina was issued an award for stellar academic achievement.

“Across the board, Ronald was recognized by the faculty as being a successful student,” said Pierson High School Vice Principal Gary Kalish, who added that Aucapina currently maintains a grade point average of 93 percent.

Aucapina, who works part-time at Schiavoni’s Market and has been described as “studious, quiet and calm,” is well deserving of praise, Kalish continued. But, his achievements are particularly worth noting for one important reason: Aucapina is a former ESL (English as a Second Language) student.

In fact, he’s the only former ESL student graduating from Pierson with honors this year.

Aucapina received his award at a special meeting last month, which was conducted in Spanish for parents of ESL students, or former ESL students like Aucapina. This was the second Spanish-language meeting held this year.

According to Pierson ESL Teaching Assistant Fausto Hinojosa, Aucapina’s recognition marks a great achievement.

Hinojosa noted the glaring absence of former ESL students who have managed to make the Pierson honor roll in the past five years. While in 2011 two students earned honors status, in 2008 and 2009 only one former ESL student made honor roll. And in 2010 that number was zero.

Since returning to the Sag Harbor School district last January after spending four years on the West Coast, Hinojosa has worked with the ESL population (including non-ESL students from Spanish-speaking homes) to try to improve these statistics.

“It’s my tremendous desire to see Spanish kids reach those levels,” he said.

On a daily basis, Hinojosa floats between classrooms during the school’s academic support period to check-in with students whom he knows may need extra help. He may stop off in a classroom to talk to a teacher about a particular student’s performance, or check in with the school guidance counselor along the way, but he ultimately ends up in the library. There, he sits down with students to make sure they’re doing their homework and — most importantly — that they understand their assignments.

Sometimes he helps students who are simply struggling academically. However, Hinojosa said he often faces a much bigger problem.

“There’s a philosophical issue here,” he began. “For many reasons — reasons I don’t understand — when many of these kids reach that level [of academic achievement], they feel uncomfortable and they don’t want to be there.”

Hinojosa, who also taught in Newport Beach, Calif., said this problem is not restricted to Pierson, though it’s certainly felt in the district.

“We’re working so hard to get these kids to produce,” he added. “It’s an unbelievable struggle.”

As for Ronald Aucapina, Hinojosa said the honor roll student rose through the academic ranks in part because of his desire to do well, but also because he had a great deal of family support. This is where the Spanish-language meetings come into play.

Making sure parents are involved in their children’s academic lives is a “crucial” part of success, Hinojosa said. And for roughly 50 ESL families at Pierson Middle/High School, engaging directly in the school community would not be possible without the ability to overcome the language barrier.

To date, Hinojosa has been able to organize three meetings in Spanish at Pierson: one in the 2010-11 school year and two in this academic year. The meetings are modeled after standards adopted in California, where Spanish-language meetings are mandatory for any public school with a student body with over 25 percent Spanish speakers or students from a household where Spanish is the primary language. (Spanish-language meetings are not mandated in the state of New York.)

Drawing a regular crowd of about 20 parents, Hinojosa said the meetings have been very successful so far, and he hopes the trend continues. Hopefully, he added, there will be more students like Ronald Aucapina in the future.

In an interview last month, Aucapina said he will attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall, where he’ll study biology. He hopes to eventually study medicine and become a physician.

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