Archive for Thursday, December 20, 2001

District strives to erase language barrier

Bilingual program grows as community’s demographics shift

December 20, 2001

Debbie Taylor's words of praise for Karina Espinosa's handwriting assignment last Friday earned a big smile and a few hesitant words.

The word and handwriting effort were significant because the fourth-grader spoke no English when she enrolled at Starside Elementary four months ago. Now, Taylor, coordinator of the English Language Learners Program at USD 232, said Espinosa understands much of what is being said, even if she is reluctant to converse in the new tongue.

"She is in what is technically known as the silent period," Taylor said. "She doesn't have the confidence yet to speak up. Once she does, watch out. It can get silly and noisy in here."

By next fall, Taylor said, Espinosa will have learned enough English from daily conversations at the school and work with the ELL program to attain a "social" level of proficiency in the language. At that level, Espinosa will be able to communicate with other students and understand the directions of teachers.

But Espinosa and the district must invest more time if the youngster is to acquire enough English to succeed at school. Taylor said it would take two to three years more for Espinoza to master "academic English. "

"At that level, they can read and write at grade-level comprehension," she said. "They are able to understand what they read not just sound out the words. "

Academic English also requires students to develop the specialized vocabularies of math and science, Taylor said.

Karina Espinosa was in the ELL lab with fourth-graders Lizete Diaz, Karina Diaz, Isela Gutierruz, Edith Villa and Nancy Marquez. Taylor said the chatty Karina Diaz would probably leave the ELL program when she departs Starside for Lexington Trails Middle School.

"She'll no longer be in the program, but I'll continue to monitor her progress to see if she has any problems," Taylor said.

The school district's ELL program is in its eighth year, Taylor said. The program has grown from 20 to 40 percent annually in the five years she has headed the program, she said.

The program serves students in all grade levels in five of the district's eight attendance centers. On the district's east side, schools are seeing an increased enrollment of Punjabi-speaking students and other immigrants from Asia, Taylor said.

Still, Taylor said the program's enrollment reflects the growing number of young Hispanic families moving to De Soto. Eighty-five percent of the program's students are enrolled at the west campus schools of Starside, Lexington Trails or De Soto High School. Of those, two-thirds are elementary students.

That is fortunate, said Starside certified ELL teacher Suzanne Miles. Mexican schools aren't as demanding as those in De Soto, she said. Worse, Mexico doesn't require children go to school, she said.

Consequently, older students face a wider gap between their academic knowledge and that of the students their age.

"It's a big advantage for kids to come in at the lower elementary level," Taylor said. "They're on more of a level playing field and can advance along with other kids in the classroom. Even first-graders spend most of that first year getting that social language."

The knowledge gap is "very difficult" for newly enrolled high school students, Taylor said.

"Many times, the high school ELL students don't even qualify as freshmen," she said. "When they get to 17 or 18 years of age, they start dropping out. We need to do a better job there with some kind of alternative program.

"We did graduate our first students last year. We're really excited about those two students."

More ELL students will graduate as the program's students advance, Taylor said. To catch up with their peers, the students spend 45 minutes a day in the ELL labs staffed by four ELL teachers and four aids, Taylor said. At Starside, they are also placed in one of the two classrooms per grade level that are taught by ELL-certified teachers, she said.

The school district attempts to identify preschool non-English speaking children into at-risk programs, Taylor said.

The efforts are expensive. Deputy Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said the district budgeted $180,000 for the ELL program this year. That was partially offset by $40,000 from the state, she said.

The program's success can be judged by scores Starside and Lexington Trails received in state writing assessment tests that make few concessions to the district's significant immigrant enrollment. When the state assessment scores were released earlier this fall, Lexington Trails earned a Standard of Excellence in writing and Starside beat the state average, barely missing the excellence standard, district curriculum director Doug Powers said. All ELL must take the assessment tests if they have been enrolled in the district for a year or perform at grade-level or better on communication skills tests, he said.

Taylor credits the students and the parents for the program's success.

"They are such good kids," Taylor said. "They work very hard. The parents are extremely supportive. They are becoming more comfortable about coming to the building for parent/teacher nights and other events. They are beginning to feel like this is something available for them."

The students are becoming more aware of what the school has to offer, too. Isela Gutierruz said she wants to play on middle school and high school basketball teams when she leaves Starside.

It is a trend the district is encouraging, Taylor said.

"We have students in band and on the teams," she said. "We want them to enhance their school experience."

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