CLINTON — On his first day of school in America, Gaspar Raymundo Lopez was on the verge of tears.
The Clinton High School junior moved nearly 3,000 miles from Guatemala to Clinton in 2010.
"It was so frustrating. The first day was awful." he said. "I wanted to go back to my country."
It wasn't just the distance or the differences between Iowa and Guatemala that left Lopez feeling lost. The Central American teen couldn't communicate because he didn't know any English.
Two years later, Lopez is on the verge of his final year of high school with dreams of going to college or serving in the Army. The difference is, now, Lopez can share his dreams in Spanish or English.
"I couldn't make friends when I didn't know English at all," Lopez said. "But then after three months I started talking to American people. In six months, I started talking regular and now I can talk to anyone."
Students who come to Clinton High School from across the world with an English language deficiency have had tremendous success through the English Language Learners program and with the help of English as a Second Language teacher Olga Cyphers.
Lesli Cuatlacuatl, a Clinton High School junior from Mexico, also has big dreams. After immigrating in 2011, she hopes to go to college and one day be a firefighter.
"I want to know the language. 'Never give up,'" she said, reciting the class motto.
According the National Center for Education Statistics, between 3 and 5.9 percent of students enrolled in Iowa's public schools in the 2010-2011 school year were English language learners.
These students often have a harder time in school than their peers. The Iowa Department of Education shows that in the 2011 to 2012 school year, English language learners had a four-year graduation rate of 73.91 percent while the same rate for all students was 89.26 percent.
Clinton High School has offered the English Language Learners program for seven years, with Cyphers at the helm for the past five. Cyphers said she's never had a student from her program drop out.
This year the program had 10 students that come from countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Mexico and China. Eight of the students are members of Clinton's 3.0 Club for having a GPA of 3.0 or higher and three of the students will graduate this year, with two of the three graduates receiving academic college scholarships. These students also work and stay involved in the school.
"They're all exceptional," CHS Principal Karinne Tharaldson Jones said.
Cyphers sympathizes with her students because 11 years ago she immigrated to the United States from Russia. While she knew English, having been an English teacher for 11 years prior, she spoke it with a British accent that gave her trouble when speaking to Americans.
"People would say, 'I'm sorry, could you repeat?' It was frustrating," she said. "But now I'm very comfortable. I think with having my background I know different techniques for teaching."
Students work with Cyphers for two periods a day to learn English or strengthen their English skills. The rest of the day they spend in classes with the general population.
Each February, they are given an English proficiency test to see where students fall on a scale of one to six. Once students achieve a six, they exit the program and their entire days are spent with their native-English speaking peers.
Cyphers has seen above-average growth in her students.
"Usually it's first level, second level, third. With our students, they jump from level one to level three," Cyphers said. "They are really moving very fast."
Doniyor Yusupov, a sophomore from Uzbekistan, is halfway to being fluent after six months in the program. While he knows a handful of other languages, he said English was the hardest to learn. Without Cyphers and the ELL program, he fears learning the language would have taken him at least five times that.
"If you are learning on your own and you don't have a teacher it can take you like five or six years to learn it," he said. "I have friends who they learned by themselves and it takes a long time."
Doniyor, along with Jakhongir Yusupov, a junior, are now in honors math classes and exiting the program is in both of their near futures. Doniyor would like to go to a prestigious college and work in economics or engineering while Jakhongir would like to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting.
So Da Lam, a sophomore from Vietnam, is preparing to transition out of the program. She takes honors courses, can read 200 pages a week and is also learning Spanish. The English Language Learners program has led her to nearly master the language and has also given her relationships that she would not have had otherwise.
"You can understand that you are not alone. There are other people that understand what you are going through," she said.
Cyphers beams with pride over the success of her students. While her goal is to help them succeed, it's a bittersweet feeling to see them move on from Clinton High School.
"We want them to succeed. We have very high expectations. It makes me very happy, but I am sad when they graduate," Cyphers said. "We are like a small family. They are like my children. When they leave home, you are sad."
The statistics of success According the National Center for Education Statistics, between 3 and 5.9 percent of students enrolled in Iowa's public schools in the 2010-2011 school year were English language learners. These students often have a harder time in school than their peers. The Iowa Department of Education shows that in the 2011 to 2012 school year, English language learners had a four-year graduation rate of 73.91 percent while the same rate for all students was 89.26 percent.