When Makula Kaba and Francisco Josue Valencia Velderrain moved from the Ivory Coast and Mexico, respectively, and began their travels as new students in Tucson, neither knew how to speak English.
The two recall how challenging and difficult it was to move to a new country during their first year of high school, enroll in new schools, and try to make new friends, all without being able to speak the language that surrounds them.
But fast forward to their senior year, and Kaba and Valencia received the Arizona Student Success Stories 2022 recognition from the Arizona Department of Education for their remarkable success in English language acquisition.
“I’m speechless; I did not know what to say. I was very excited, but I was also in shock,” Valencia, a fourth-grader at Palo Verde High School, said of the moment her teacher Joanna Goldberg broke the news.
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“I didn’t know it was going to be a big thing, and then when we went there, I saw that there were a lot of people, and it was an extremely big event,” Kaba, a senior at Catalina High School, said of the awards ceremony that took place at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort in December.
Kaba and Valencia were among four students who received the Arizona Student Success Stories award last year. The other two, a sixth grader and a high school senior, attend schools in the Phoenix area.
Makula Kaba Kaba, whose native language is French, was nominated by her English Language Development (ELD) coordinator, Wendy McFeely.
Kaba said she had lived in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, for most of her life and moved to Tucson with her family in 2019.
“Most of the time, I avoided communicating with anyone,” Kaba said of her first few weeks in Tucson. “The only words she knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so even if she didn’t know what you were saying, she would just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Due to the civil war in his country, he said, he had not been to school for about five years before coming to Catalina High. So she, in addition to not knowing how to speak English, she was behind in other subjects like math and science.
He began his freshman year by focusing on learning English and practicing simple math equations, such as multiplication and division. In her sophomore year, she was taking regular science and math courses offered by her school.
In his spare time, he created his own French-English dictionary, where he would write down and practice words and phrases that he thought would be useful at the time. He also spent a lot of time reading books that he borrowed from his ELD classes.
“I read a lot of books. I don’t even like to read, but I did it all the time after school to improve my English,” she said.
The pandemic disrupted her in-person education during her sophomore year, and looking back on that time, she said she felt less self-conscious about interacting with her classmates on camera than she did in person.
“She was very secretive, so they didn’t really know she was going to Catalina,” she said. “Then when she opened the school, I met them in person, and we started to be friends and get to know each other.”
She noted that she became even more confident in her English skills when she was able to score well on her first test of the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, which measures students’ English language proficiency based on state and federal requirements.
“It was from there that I felt more comfortable speaking and expressing myself. I felt like I could still do something even though I’m still learning,” she said, adding that winning the Arizona Student Success Stories award made her feel even better.
“To be recognized for your good work and hard work, that’s a nice thing,” Kaba said.
Francis ValenciaValencia, whose first language is Spanish, was born in Nogales, Arizona, and grew up on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales, Sonora. He was nominated for the award by his teacher Joanna Goldberg.
She said she moved to Tucson in 2018 because her parents believed that completing her education in the United States would be best and open more doors for her. So she moved in with her family in the area, including her older sister, who was also a student at Palo Verde High School at the time.
He said that he knew a few words of English, but it was not enough to speak in complete sentences or carry on a conversation.
“My first day here, it was the worst. I didn’t know anyone, not even the teachers and I didn’t understand them,” she said. “At first I didn’t want to be here, to be honest, but I knew it was the best for me, so I gave it a try and now I love it.”
Valencia said she was able to handle the social aspect of school a little more smoothly by hanging out with her sister and her friends, most of whom spoke Spanish. But, she said, getting out of that comfort zone was crucial to mastering a new language.
“People told me that if I only had friends who spoke Spanish, it was going to be a struggle for me to learn English,” she said. “So I tried to talk to more people who only spoke English.”
Like Kaba, Valencia began her first year with ELD classes and relied on her phone’s translation app to communicate with her teachers and classmates. By her junior year, she had already transferred out of the ELD program and was taking regular English courses.
He said that he focused on reading books as well as researching and studying various English grammar rules at school and in his spare time to improve his conversational skills. She also watched movies and television shows with English audio and Spanish subtitles to try to grasp what certain words and phrases meant.
In addition to her school work, she said, she spent more than 20 hours of her spare time improving her English skills each week. When she found out that she had received the state’s Arizona Student Success Stories award, her entire family celebrated that her hard work was paying off.
“My sisters told me that I deserved it because they knew everything that had happened. My parents were even more proud. My mom even cried,” she said.
He said his parents were unable to join him at the award ceremony, because the pandemic has delayed his process to renew his expired visa.
Now that she can carry full conversations in English, Valencia said, she loves her school and her community.
“School isn’t easier, but I really like the community around me. There are a lot of students from other countries and I really like talking to them and learning about them,” she said. “Tucson is also much calmer and nicer than Mexico, so I enjoy it.”
When asked about their advice for other non-English speaking students, Valencia and Kaba shared the same sentiment.
“Don’t close yourself in a circle of people who speak the same language as you, because that’s going to make things more difficult,” Valencia said.
Kaba agreed, saying, “That is the hardest part,” branching out, “but if you try to avoid it, you will remain in the darkness of ignorance.”
Do you have any questions or news tips about K-12 education in southern Arizona? Contact reporter Génesis Lara at email@example.com
2 students who migrated to Tucson are awarded for their success with English