International students bound for schools in the U.S. find Harker’s well-established English Language Institute (ELI) a near-essential part of their preparation.
The ELI students, aged six to 16, come primarily from Asia, but many of the continents were represented this year with students attending from such diverse countries as Russia, Bolivia, Brazil and Ethiopia.
Many students come to ELI to increase their chances of admission to college preparatory boarding schools in the United States, said Anthony Wood, ELI director. A few have been “admitted conditionally and referred to the program by their admissions directors,” he said, speaking to both the program’s renown and value.
Those with better English skills often have attended international schools in their home countries where much, if not all, of the instruction takes place in English. They come here, said teacher Lyle Davidson, “to either solidify or improve what they already know and to get extensive practice.” He noted students choose Harker because of its worldwide reputation, and, no surprise, “to experience California.”
As a mature program, the ELI provides value-plus and that includes a good look at U.S and California culture. While the focus is on learning English from 8:00-3:30 most days, cultural adventures this year included visits to the Roaring Camp Railroad in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the San Jose Tech Museum and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
While in the Monterey area, the group stopped at the Carmel Mission for some historical context on California’s development. U.S. history was integrated into the curriculum to give students moving on to U.S. schools a good background for learning more about the U.S. This year, Jared Ramsey, Harker history teacher, taught a specialized curriculum introducing major events that have shaped the United States. “He added great variety and expertise to our program,” said Wood, “and the students really enjoyed his creative teaching methods.”
At the conclusion of formal instruction each day, learning continues in the enrichment program, which takes different forms for different ages. The younger students swim and play games. On Mondays and Fridays, they join the summer camp program at Bucknall.
“It’s an opportunity for the kids to immerse themselves with American kids who speak English as their first language,” said Wood, “They get to make new friends and practice their English, but they also get to do the climbing wall, sports and other things.”
The most advanced students, usually aged 14-16, stay at the Saratoga campus and work on special projects tailored to their needs. For many, that means SAT preparation. They are assisted by mentors (sometimes called buddies), who are often Harker juniors, seniors or recent graduates.
Davidson, a 13-year ELI veteran who oversees the advanced students’ curriculum as well as the mentor program, said students arrive with a pretty good understanding of grammar, but they often need help in other areas. “The SAT asks very tricky questions in reading comprehension,” he says. “The buddies…are able to take a teaching role and model how they would confront the problem — and they do it all in English.”
Mentor Brian Lee, a 2010 graduate of Harker, says he really enjoys hanging out with the students. They talk about music a lot, he says, and, with the natural curiosity of young people, “they ask questions about our personal lives, like where we come from.”
One student “thought that I was Vietnamese, but I am actually Chinese…and I know Cantonese and Mandarin,” Lee said, but the real surprise came “when I said I came from here.”
“It’s good to keep them on their toes,” says mentor coordinator Cynthia Huang, who is working toward her master’s in education and speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese, and some Japanese. “Children that are out of their element are going to group together–by language, age or gender, because that’s their comfort zone. We want them to be outside their comfort zone in order to push them to that next step,” she says.
Not that they shouldn’t enjoy plenty of comforts while they are here. All of the students travel with a parent or guardian and most choose to stay next door in the Oakwood Apartments, with which Harker has a special arrangement.
Angel Lin, from Taiwan, thinks it’s fun to stay at Oakwood. “It’s all students,” she says. Indeed, Wood said he was impressed when he attended a party thrown by parents at the end of the first session. “They all seem close even though they are from different countries. They all get together and obviously the kids make friends.”
The school days are long, but the students seem to thrive on it. Huu Li, from Vietnam, is in Davidson’s advanced class and says he really likes his teacher. “He’s very funny. He knows how to make the students feel happy and we never feel tired when we study.”