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Paynesville Press - October 27, 2004

School launches English as Second Language program

By Michael Jacobson

School tends to be easier if you can understand your teachers.

Whether it's heeding directions, listening to lectures, or participating in class discussions, understanding language is a prerequisite to learning the content.

The Paynesville Area School District started an English as a Second Language (ESL) program last year to help students improve their English with the ultimate goal of improving all their classwork.

In December 2004, teacher Sarah Kruger started the ESL program in Paynesville when four Hispanic students were identified as needing additional help with language. By law, the district must provide services to students who qualify.

Kruger, a second-year teacher, has those four students in the ESL proggram in the high school this year and has added another student at the elementary school this fall.

students So far, Paynesville has had limited numbers of English Language Learners, students learning English as well as trying to learn the regular curriculum, said Kruger. But the district should prepare for an increase. "It's expected that it'll probably increase every year I imagine," said Kruger.

Teacher Sarah Kruger (front) poses with her high school ESL students - from left, junior Maria Lopez, ninth grader Lili Ryan, ninth grader Gilbert Lopez, and ninth grader Florentina Lopez - in their classroom in the library.

"I'm surprised it took us this long to have some families who need services, but it's here to stay," agreed elementary principal Deb Gillman, who oversees the ESL program.

To qualify for the English as a Second Language program, students either need to be identified as being impacted by a second language at home (speaking another language at home, as identified by an annual questionnaire) or, in grades 3-12, need to test as nonproficient in English.

The three general levels for English Language Learners are non-English speaking, limited English proficiency, and fluent English speaking, said Kruger.

Actually, the gap between the first level (non-English speaking) to the second level (limited English proficiency) is smaller than the gap between the second level and the third (fluency). In ESL terms, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) - face-to-face communication - take a year or two to develop while Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) - the language required for academic achievement - takes five to eight years to master. In other words, ELL students may speak English fine, and in one-on-one communication may fare well, but their language proficiency may still affect their school work. Kruger works with ninth graders at PAHS whose spoken English is fine but whose reading levels lag.

In fact, these students were not identified as English Language Learners until December last year because their English, as spoken, seemed fine.

So part of Kruger's job is to build the ESL program, including learning about these issues herself and working with all teachers to identify language issues and to use strategies and techniques to cope.

Kruger, who also teaches Early Childhood Family Education in the school district, is teaching ESL on a variance, having three years to complete her licensure. Kruger does speak some Spanish, having taken three semesters in college, and has worked with children of migrant workers in the summer at the Head Start in Belgrade.

At the elementary level, Kruger might work on understanding basic English. Being able to follow directions from a teacher and following classroom dialogue is the first step for non-English speaking students.

But, even as their English skills grow, they might not keep pace with the increasing difficulty in academic content. "You might be able to hold a conversation with one of these students, but when they open a textbook, the comprehension is not there because they don't have the vocabulary," explained Gillman.

Science and social science, for instance, rely on specialized terms that frequently go beyond the limited vocabularies of English Language Learners. While science uses some nonverbal learning, like demonstrations and experiments, social science relies on complex language, words such as democracy and judiciary, making it particularly difficult, said Gillman.

One testing strategy that Kruger shares with teachers is offering some alternative testing for ELL students. For them, writing an essay might be difficult, not because of their understanding of the concepts but because of their limited English proficiency. In science, for example, an ELL student might have trouble explaining the water cycle in words but could show they know the concept of the water cycle in a drawing.

If not addressed, language problems can lead to attendance problems. Kruger explained, "If day after day after day they're coming to school and not understanding, they're going to lose interest."

"How many days can you come to school and not understand a word and still want to come?" she added. Kruger works with the elementary student for an hour three days a week and works with the high school students for two periods four days a week. She has seen results already. Her students are excited to do well and to have success in school. "If we set them up for failure, they'll fail. If we set them up to succeed, there's no limit," she said. "This class rocks," said Maria Lopez, a junior who was born in Mexico but raised in Texas, where her brother Gilbert and sister Florentina, both ninth graders at PAHS, were born.

Maria said she has attended nine or ten schools. Their family lived in Willmar for two years before coming to Paynesville. This is their second year in the Paynesville schools.

While all the students are very nice to them, Maria, Florentina, and Lili Raya, another ninth grader, said it was difficult to make friends. Only Gilbert reported success, including more this year than last. "It's kind of cool," he said, "but it's kind of weird, too, because everyone knows you, but you don't know everyone."

The ultimate goal of the E SL program is to get students up to speed in English and out of the program. If identification of language needs happens earlier, the gap in academic content is smaller, making it easier for ELL students to catch up. But these students tend to be mobile, meaning they aren't likely to remain in the same school district from kindergarten to graduation.

The school district has another reason to do well with its ESL program. ELL students are a category that must show improvement under No Child Left Behind.

Right now, Paynesville does not have enough ELL students for that category to be judged when deciding if the district is making adequate yearly progress (AYP), as defined by No Child Left Behind. But Melrose does, and that district was deemed to not be making AYP this year based partly on its test scores for limited English proficiency students.

The Paynesville Area School District, with five ELL students, has less than one percent of its K-12 student body in its ESL program. Melrose, by comparison, with a growing Hispanic population, has 11 percent of its student body in its ESL program. (Melrose had 108 ELL students in its elementary school (K-6) and 56 in its secondary school (7-12) last year.)

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