Last year I was called to the office. The principal informed me that we had three first grade ESE students registering at the same time! Oh my! My shock at having three from the same family enrolling in the same grade (twins and an older brother that had been retained) was immediately overtaken when I saw the three adorable, but desperately sad children. In broken Spanish and with tears, the mother told us that their teenage brother had been shot in a drive-by shooting just days before and that she had moved to our area in hopes of a safer place to raise her children. The little ones had been very close to their older brother and were heart-broken by the events. Although we decided to place all of the children in the same class, it was a difficult few weeks for them. They had to be pushed into the classroom each day and mostly stood at the back of the room. If one was having a hard time, I think they each felt like they needed to stick together and have a hard time too. I remember one day one of them tried to climb into a cubbie at the back of the room and then they all tried. There were meltdowns and tears and just the saddest eyes that I have ever seen. It was difficult, but slowly the teacher with her magic belief coaxed each of the children into the classroom. Her love and support radiated.
As the year progressed you could see the children coming out of their shells. The teacher, who is fairly fluent in Spanish began to push with an empathetic tone that they began to trust. Our Behavior Interventionist invited the children to attend a weekly support group for children who had lost someone they loved. There were very few smiles that year, but with the help of our second language assistant and the teacher we were able to help the family in many ways outside of school. At the end of the year, the teacher recommended that the brother twin stay back and even with the mother's support and comparison information from the sister twin, the ESOL Office believed the problem was basically language and refused to let the bother twin stay behind.
As we ventured into the second year the boys looped to second grade with their same kindergarten teacher and the girl went to another first grade class with the ESE teacher. The teachers felt like she would blossom if she didn't feel like she had to take care of the boys - such a heavy load for such a young child.
The boys blossomed too. The teachers secured a counselor who saw the children weekly during the school day and the mother made sure that all three children were at the ARC (outside tutoring supplied free by the school in the children's neighborhood) every Tuesday to receive extra help. All of the children began to speak more and they all became readers! They were so proud of themselves.
Last week the teacher brought three blue balloons to the playground and invited each of the children to write a special message to their brother. It would have been his 18th birthday. After they wrote their message they stood together and released the balloons to the sky. There was a momentary hush that fell over the playground as all the children turned to watch the three balloons disappear over the building. The children smiled. There wasn't a dry eye among the adults as they watched this precious trio who had come so far. The older brother and sister twin will go on to second grade next year, both strong readers. After another meeting the brother twin will remain in first grade to strengthen his skills. Each child will be in a different class for the first time and will have the opportunity to shine on their own.
This doesn't mean that all of the problems for this family are over. They have another older brother that has had trouble with the law. They still suffer from many of the same problems that are inherent in poverty and being citizens of a second language navigating a highway of language subtleties, but I am just so proud of the way that individuals in my school responded to the needs of this family. The caring individuals - the teachers, the second language assistant, the Behavior Interventionist, and so many other people along the way who reached out their hand and said, "How can I help?" This is what "school" and "learning" are all about.