English Learners on the rise in county schools
By Kathryn Schiliro | Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Upon her entrance, the classroom seems a bit daunting to Laura Rodriguez.
She gathers her courage, moves to the front of the crowd seated on the floor, takes a seat among the colored tiles and, quietly at first, shyly, begins reading—in Spanish.
But "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is a familiar tale, the Kindergarteners are learning Spanish and teacher Shelly Ewing is helping the class follow along with Miss Laura by using an English version of the same story.
"Caliente!" Kindergarteners reply when asked about Goldilocks' porridge.
"This is the part where she tries out all the chairs," Ewing tells the class. "How do we say 'bear' in Espanol?"
"Oso!" the class replies. They also know "Muy bien!" and "Gracias!" and "Adios!"
"These words are in English in this book, and these words are in Spanish in this book, but our books are the same story," Ewing says.
Then, asked if anyone wanted to address Miss Laura in Spanish, one boy simply yells out, "Azul!"
Laura looks at him questioningly, then at the teacher.
"He just wanted to say 'blue,'" Ewing replies.
Laura smiles and nods, then she laughs.
Beyond the Basics
"Miss Laura" Rodriguez is not only a supplement to these Kindergartners' Spanish lessons, but is also the mother of an English Learner student.
The bulk of Morgan County students who are in the English Learners (EL) program are in primary and elementary school. By the time these students make it to middle and high school, they don't need the extra support.
Dalcy Moreno, the school system's EL coordinator, has about 30 students at Morgan County Primary and about 15 at Morgan County Elementary.
The vast majority of them – 90 percent – speak Spanish, which is good because Moreno's a native speaker. However, the Morgan County School System also teaches Vietnamese, Hmong, Punjabi and German-speaking students.
"The program looks at the language development of students so that they can function in the classroom," Moreno said.
Language development includes four domains: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
To be accepted into the EL program, a language survey is given to parents. If it seems that a language other than English is predominantly used at home, the student is given a test. The score of that test determines whether the student is placed in the EL program.
There are five levels in the program, level one having the least acquisition of English and five being ready to transition out of EL. The majority of level one EL students are Kindergartners coming from a Spanish-only household.
To move up a level or out of the program, students are given the ACCESS test in February of each year to analyze "the level of secondary language acquisition," Moreno said.
Students are monitored for two years after they test out of the program.
"Others may go all the way through high school in the program," Moreno said.
Moreno works closely with teachers when it comes to EL instruction. She clarifies or enhances what EL students are learning and, she said, uses a lot of repetition and visual cues when teaching to get the lesson across. She will pull a student out of the classroom if the need arises, but likes to work with them in the environment where they spend most of their time.
In addition to working with students, Moreno also works on the schools' behalf when it comes to translating notes or calling an EL student's parent if they're sick at school.
"I stay really busy every single day," Moreno said. "You get to know these families personally because they're always asking you questions."
As is the case with Miss Laura, EL parents take part in their children's education as much as possible. They want to.
"[EL] parents are very involved with their kids' education," Moreno said. "They're interested in learning more. Language is a barrier that impedes them."
Teachers will send students' evaluations home for parents to read. The evaluations for EL students in a Spanish-only home, for instance, will have to go through Moreno to be translated. Oftentimes, parents will write notes back to the teacher with questions, which Moreno translates, asks the teacher, translates the answer or explanation and sends a note back home.
"If you provide the means to access, in terms of language, help, [parents] will respond to everything we ask for," Moreno said.
Additionally, the primary school hosts Latino Family Nights specifically to offer support to this population of students and their parents.
Asked about what they do at home, Rodriguez (as translated by Moreno) said he is helping her son – though it's in Spanish – through Kindergarten as best she can.
"Anything that's necessary," Rodriguez said of how she and her son's father, Armando Sanchez, help with his education. "At home, we read and study with him."
And Rodriguez says anything she has questions about means a note is written to Moreno, who gets back in touch with her.
This is Rodriguez and Sanchez's first child, so they're learning the system through him, Moreno explained. Both parents expressed they were proud of their son's progress in learning English.
"I think he's giving his best to learn English," Sanchez said, adding that he feels his son is picking up the language and using it more and more.
The number of EL students has grown to the point that, just last school year, the Morgan County School System crossed the threshold in regards to federal funding.
In the 2004-2005 school year, there were 10 EL students in the system; 18 in the 2005-2006 year; 23 in the 2006-2007 year; 31 in the 2007-2008 year; 39 in the 2008-2009 year; 62 in the 2009-2010 year. Last year, there were 70 EL students in the system – 31 at the primary school, 18 at the elementary school, 11 at the middle school and 10 at the high school.
"School systems which reach or exceed the [EL] population threshold receive a Title III federal grant to fund services," Superintendent Dr. Ralph Bennett writes in email correspondence. "We received direct funding last year for the first time for the amount of $11,043."
Until last year, the system was part of a consortium of systems that had EL students but not enough to qualify for federal funding individually; together, they qualified for federal funding and split it.
The kicker? Federal law requires that EL students be served no matter how many there are in a system or whether or how much Title III funding is received. At its most basic, EL services have to include one period a day of instruction by an EL-certified teacher, Bennett writes. Salaries for two half-time EL teachers last year came to about $67,000.
Once the more than $11,000 in federal funds were spent, the other costs for salaries and benefits, materials and professional learning were covered by grant and local funds, Bennett writes.
"Fortunately, our school boards have always been committed to providing for the necessary support services for these students," Bennett writes.
He said he expects that the school system will have to spend more this year, as he anticipates final counts will show the EL population has again grown. This means that the EL population may earn more money, but Bennett also expects they'll qualify as a subgroup in Adequate Yearly Progress measures, something that the population hasn't been big enough for before this year.
Moreno has become full-time in the school system now, and more and more teachers are becoming EL-endorsed, which means they can work with the EL students within their classrooms.
"We have the same high expectations for all the kids," Moreno said. "Some are just learning two languages."