Norine Polio
May 2019

Written by Lisa Dilullo
Photography © Lena Kavalenko

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It’s wildly colorful, and yet deftly organized. It’s bright and engaging, first stimulating and then calming as your eyes dart from the puppet theater to colorful learning aids, skip to the flags of many nations, and then linger on rows of books for the students who had just been dismissed.

Even empty of students, this tiny classroom for the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at the East Rock Elementary School feels electrically alive.

The architect of this sensory wonderland, teacher Norine Polio, stayed after school recently to discuss the ESOL program. Her ESOL tutoring assistant is Tamarah Shannah, an Iraqi refugee.

Their efforts are firmly supported by their New Haven Public Schools peers and administrators, a generous community of donors and tutors, and organizations like IRIS that help refugees and other displaced people establish new lives in America.

“It certainly takes a village to welcome these wonderful children,” Norine said.

With 38 years teaching experience, Norine understands the need for a diverse, supportive environment to enhance ESOL learning. She’s been teaching ESOL for 25 of those years, dating back to when East Rock hosted the district’s New Arrival Center.

Today, the East Rock ESOL instructional program hosts 60 children in grades K-8. Norine estimates about 20 are refugees; the remainder are immigrants or temporary residents whose first language is not English. This year, her students hail from 19 countries, and speak 11 languages.

The ESOL students have content classes, which the ESOL program is designed to augment.

“From my initial years at East Rock through the present, the administration has always trusted our subject area knowledge,” Norine said. “I so appreciate the supportive staff and caring teachers here. They, like I, see the enthusiasm for learning, motivation and family support these students embody.”

When Norine first started teaching ESOL at East Rock, she said children from Bosnia were the largest group. Throughout the years, the countries of origin have changed while other things have stayed the same: For example, the respect and care the staff shows by not questioning students about their backgrounds.

As the students adjust, Norine might learn more about life in their countries of origin. Some are stories of children being children.

“Just recently, we went outdoors to collect small rocks for a geology lesson,” Norine explained, pointing to the neat row of work papers and rocks lining the center table. “One of the children showed me a game they played in Syria, using the small stones in a game just like American ‘Jacks’. We have so much in common!”

Being in the field for decades has allowed Norine and her peers to follow the progress of ESOL students as they leave East Rock for high school, thrive in college, and later establish themselves in the community. “I’m continually amazed at how motivated these children are, and how well they do,” she said.

Again, though, Norine stressed the importance of “the village” in this success.

At any given time, the village may have an IRIS employee tutoring a promising student through temporary woes in math. It has a steady flow of Yale University tutors and generous donors. It has supportive families. It may have a New Haven business owner considering retirement, who recognizes a refugee’s incredible work ethic and honesty, and decides to sell the refugee his business.

Among the many families Norine has met during her 25 years in ESOL instruction, she said, “There are so many success stories.” Her eyes light up with energy, just like the room she’s sitting in. “I love it.”