HAYWARD -- Children from all over the world walk into Cristina Igoa's classroom at Tyrrell School, where they find a safe, accepting place -- and a teacher who believes in them and their ability to learn to read in English.
Igoa will share how she brings students up to English language third-grade level at a Commission on the Status of Women symposium Wednesday at the United Nations in New York City. With her will be two of her former students, Rosario Campos, 12, and Zarmina Kochi, 29, whose travel expenses are being covered by the Hayward Education Foundation.
Both Rosario and Kochi, with Igoa's help, went from being shy girls barely able to read English to confident honor students.
Igoa, who has taught at Tyrrell since 1991 and has a doctorate in multicultural education, said it is crucial that children be able to read at grade level by the end of the third grade.
"Third grade is pivotal," she said. Until then, students learn to read. "But in fourth grade and up, you read to learn."
The students in Igoa's elementary school classes are close in age, but their grasp of English varies widely. Igoa gives those who are furthest behind first-grade-level books that they must read -- and understand -- before they go on to second-grade books and finally to third-grade ones. She applies the same method for math in her accelerated learning program, which requires nightly homework to help the students make up lost ground.
"I like to read. I make my mom buy books for me to read, even in the summer," she said.
It wasn't always that way for the bubbly girl with a ready smile. Rosario, born in Mexico, did not speak any English when she came to the United States at age 6.
"I would cry; it was so difficult," she said. "It was overwhelming."
Besides working on the girl's reading, Igoa started teaching her phonics to improve her English pronunciation
"I would be in the car and start saying 'thu,' 'sh,' 'the,' and my mom would be like, 'What are you doing?' But she caught on and started doing phonics with me," Rosario said. And by the end of the third grade, she was reading at an advanced level.
Kochi was just months old when her family escaped to Pakistan from Afghanistan during the Soviet war in that country.
"Thankfully, my dad was open-minded and wanted his daughters educated. Afghanistan is not a place for a woman. Even in Pakistan, my older sisters had rocks thrown at them as they would go to school," Kochi said.
After the family spent five years in Pakistan, her parents jumped at the chance to come to the United States when a Nebraska church offered to sponsor them. The family later moved to California and connected with an Afghan community.
"Boy, was that a mistake," Kochi said. "When you're outside of your culture, you have no choice; you have to learn the language."
She became a student at Tyrrell when Igoa was a sixth-grade teacher. When Kochi began in that class, "I was pretty far behind," she said.
Kochi had to go back and start with first-grade books, progressing until she was an advanced reader by the end of that school year. She later graduated from high school with honors and earned a bachelor's degree in physics. She now works for a tech company.
"I count my blessings for having parents that took the incredible opportunity to lead the family here and to be able to get educated against all odds because" of Igoa's program, she said.
Igoa has written a book about her experience and teaching methods called "The Inner World of the Immigrant Child." She has been invited to talk about her program and her book at symposiums in the United States and abroad, including Hong Kong, England, Spain, Canada and New Zealand.
She was an immigrant child herself. Born in the Philippines, she moved with her family to Colombia and later to the United States, and she can relate to the culture shock that many of her students experience.
On the walls of her classroom, she posts the work of all her students, not just the top ones.
"I'm trying to get everyone to be winners. When you have multicultures and multilanguages, it requires ingenuity," she said.
As her classroom size has increased to more than 30 students, her work has become more challenging, she admitted. This year, she has five reading groups, all at different levels, but the students are making progress.
"I made my classroom into a one-room school," she said. "Nobody believes you can close the gap in one year, but you can."