The language of learning

English isn't natural for some students


— There is no question that the hand of globalization has touched even the relatively small Rocky Mountain town of Steamboat Springs but the extent to which it is affecting Steamboat's students goes way beyond, for example, the Internet.

Chinese, Norwegian, Mexican, Russian, and Honduran families are just a handful of the international community members whose children have been learning English in the RE-2 schools.

The challenges posed by non-English speaking students in the Steamboat Springs schools seem to be, in many ways, blessings in disguise.

"Certainly there are challenges associated with this, but it shows the rest of our students that there are other cultures, other languages, other celebrations in addition to what they're familiar with," Soda Creek Elementary School principal Cheryl Sage said.

In a city as relatively isolated as Steamboat, native school children have limited exposure to other cultures. Thus the diversity introduced to students by non-English speaking residents is indeed a unique reward of living in a growing, resort economy.

Last year, the RE-2 district schools had a total of 11 non-English-speaking students in grades K-12, Sage said. Seven or eight of them needed a Spanish-speaking tutor, although others were and have been from Norway, Russia, China and Japan.

Strawberry Park Elementary School principal John DeVincentis said that the majority of the Spanish-speaking students in the district seem to be coming from Honduras, and seem to be coming to Routt County for work. Although Sage could not release the names of the non-English speaking families, DeVincentis spoke on behalf of a few.

"This is a gross generalization," DeVincentis said, "but several families from Honduras have moved up here to live with families that moved up before them. We sometimes associate Spanish-speaking with Mexico, but that's not really the case."

Sage added that non-natives like Norwegian-speaking students are usually attracted to the area via the ski industry in some form.

Last year, the district's English as a second language, or ESL, tutor, Molly Munding, helped non-English speaking students function in an English-speaking school setting. Munding is American, but came straight from living in Chile to work in Routt County, DeVincentis said. He added that Munding did a great job working with the students, but that the majority of ESL students who speak Spanish also speak English fairly well.

"We've had this ESL tutor in the past, but that doesn't mean we always have a tutor who speaks the languages these students need," DeVincentis said.

Hiring a tutor who is fluent in Spanish a task the district is undergoing again because Munding is moving on is ideal not primarily because of the students with Spanish-speaking backgrounds, but also because these students' parents often do not speak English at all.

"We've used our tutor as an interpreter between parents and the schools," DeVincentis said. "Molly would translate letters and forms. Communication with adults, who typically learn second languages a bit more slowly, was really key with the tutor."

Sage agreed that the younger the child, the better able he or she will be able to learn a second language.

"The good news is that these students are at the prime age for learning another language," she said. "And we want to teach them enough to function in a classroom certainly not to take away from their native language."

In fact, Sage added, having ESL students in the district provides the schools with a great opportunity to require learning two languages.

"It's a prime skill," she said. "And this is the time for them to learn."

As last year's tutor is leaving the district, Sage and DeVincentis are currently looking for a new ESL tutor.

Munding said it's very enriching for both students and herself to work with children from another culture who speak another language, and that after having worked as the ESL tutor for RE-2, she'll be pursuing further education because she can see there is a definite need for ESL-certified teachers.

"The program is really in transition," Munding said. "They'll be developing it more in a month or so."

In fact whoever is hired for the ESL position will be sent to conferences to learn just what sort of program the RE-2 district would be best advised to implement.

"We don't have a full-fledged ESL program like schools on the Front Range," DeVincentis said. "We have a tutor, and we hope that tutor will be able to help Spanish-speaking students develop abstract and complex concepts, as well as to communicate with adults in the district and help teach other non-English languages."


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