Teachers help 9-year-old Russian girl hurdle language barrier

Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Katrina Klein, 9, who draws much attention from the other students, gets help from kindergarten teacher Janice Black while working on a computer application to build her English vocabulary skills at Wanamaker Elementary School in Topeka, Kan. (Mike Shepherd ~ The Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Katrina Klein is like any other third-grader at Wanamaker Elementary School. The 9-year-old with short brown hair likes to wear embroidered printed tops in tune with pre-adolescent fashion. Her favorite foods are pizza and ice cream, and she likes to play baseball with her 10-year-old sister, Meagan, in their back yard. Her favorite subject is math.

The similarities with her classmates are many, but there is one difference: She can't speak English. Katrina was born on June 10, 1995, in Yeysk -- a city on the coast of the Sea of Azov in the Krasnodar region of Russia -- and was adopted by Topekans Curt and Paige Klein last fall.

The adoption, coordinated by Dove Adoptions International near Portland, Ore., was finalized during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when the Kleins flew a second time to the former Soviet Union to bring Katrina home.

Learning about each other, and how to live together, has proved to be a challenge.

"That's the whole problem, not being able to talk effectively and understand each other," Curt Klein said. "I just wish we could talk."

The Kleins use an online English-to-Russian translator to communicate with Katrina until she learns enough words to understand everyday conversations, a process that is being helped by the special attention she is receiving at Wanamaker Elementary School.

Katrina spends her mornings in Janice Black's kindergarten class learning the alphabet and the different sounds each letter makes.

"She didn't like it at first," her father said. "She doesn't want to be treated like someone with a learning disability."

But Katrina, who started at Wanamaker with no academic or conversational English language skills, can say all of her ABCs, count to 100 and form some basic phrases. Black, and other teachers, suspect she had some education in Russia.

"She's catching on, she really is," Black said. "Her math is just fabulous."

The other kindergartners are captivated when Katrina reads aloud for them from children's novels printed in Russian that teacher Lisa Adame bought off eBay, including "Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book" and, most recently, "Winnie the Pooh."

"We want her to keep her Russian reading skills up because that will help her acquire English," said Adame, an English Language Learner teacher at Wanamaker Elementary. "If she doesn't stay dominant in Russian, then she won't be dominant in any language."

That, Adame said, could lead to a loss of identity and affect her self-esteem.

"Katrina is at the top of my list because her need is the greatest," Adame said. "I feel good that she's got kindergarten."

Katrina spends a portion of her afternoons in Cheryl Smallback's third-grade classroom, where she can develop age-appropriate social skills that will help maintain her self-esteem. "She's a doll, and I love working with her," Adame said.

Adame said that Katrina will take an English proficiency test later this spring that will determine what classes she'll be in next year.

Meanwhile, Adame is scouting the school's first- and fourth-grade teachers to find a duo who are nurturing, patient and willing to modify their lesson plans to best fit Katrina's educational needs.

Conversational proficiency is gained usually in two to three years, Adame said. Within five to seven years, Katrina should be academically proficient. "Come back in the fall and she'll be a completely different person," she said.

The Kleins, who could not conceive a second child without medical intervention, considered Katrina to be the missing piece of their family.

"She's real independent, and I think that has to do with the structure of the orphanage," Curt Klein said, adding that when they visited Katrina in Russia they saw children mopping floors, some wearing only underwear.

"Believe me, you wouldn't believe some of the stuff we could tell you." Paige Klein said, adding that she felt as if she was rescuing Katrina from the hell she'd likely live to see if she were left in the orphanage. "That's what I said to Curt on the first flight back to the States: 'We've got to rescue her,'" she said.

Katrina spent the first two weeks of December living with her new family in their home in Topeka. Curt Klein, who drives a truck at the Hill's Pet Nutrition plant, and his wife, who works as a supervisor at the material distribution center for the U.S. Postal Service at Forbes Field, were able to take time off from their jobs to begin forming a bond with Katrina.

The Kleins said Katrina was excited to come to the United States but sad to leave her friends at the orphanage, including a pair of older volunteers who wanted to adopt Katrina but couldn't afford to do so.

"She has a really good relationship with Curt," Paige Klein said. "But she never had a father. All the caretakers at the orphanage were female."

The Kleins aren't sure about Katrina's past, but they know she was neglected by her mother. "There was some violence that she witnessed," Paige Klein added. "We don't know what she went through up to age 5."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: