Craig Editor's note: The following is the third story in a six-part series examining the impact of a
growing Spanish-speaking community in Moffat County. It will look at social ramifications from those on both sides of the issue.
When Nidia Martinez was 4 years old, her parents decided they wanted to move the family from Mexico to Craig.
Because the first years of her life had been spent in Mexico, and her family spoke only Spanish, Nidia didn't speak a word of English when she started school in the Moffat County School District.
"My gosh it was hard," she says, reflecting back on those first days of school. "I didn't know what the teacher was saying and I would try to communicate with others but no one could understand me."
Not only was the language a barrier, but so was the culture, including the school cafeteria food.
"Everything was new to me," she said. "It took some getting used to."
Martinez, who graduated from Moffat County High School in 2001, said she was one of the first Spanish-only speaking students to go to school in the district.
Although it was scary, Martinez said, it was, in a way, beneficial for her not to be able to communicate with anyone.
"I was forced to learn English quickly," she said. "I started school in December and in one semester I knew English. I was taking hard-core English classes."
Martinez would be drilled with English vocabulary all day in school, then would return home to a Spanish-speaking family.
But to Martinez, that was also beneficial.
"It helped my Spanish skills," she said. "Some children who learn English just end up speaking that. But I had to come home and practice my Spanish skills."
As Martinez progressed through the grade levels of Moffat County Schools, she began to see many more students coming into the system who were facing the situation she was when she first started kindergarten.
"I was asked several times to interpret in middle and high school," she said.
Martinez is now a student at the University of Northern Colorado.
She is an elementary education major with an emphasis in English as a second language.
When Martinez graduates, she said she would like to return to the Moffat County School District to teach, and there is a good chance that a job might be available.
The challenges faced by Martinez when she first began school are being faced by an ever-increasing number of new Spanish-speaking students going to school in the Moffat County School District.
In 1994, there were 20 students enrolled in the English Language Learner Program in the district.
In 1998, there were 45 students, and in 2001 there were 87 students.
"The population has been doubling every three to four years," said school district Superintendent Pete Bergmann.
In 2002, there were 106 students in the district who spoke English as a second language.
Making adjustments to meet the continuously changing world of technology is an ongoing challenge facing the school district, Bergmann said.
But being able to educate and meet the needs of the increasing number of Spanish-speaking students has become possibly the main priority in recent years, Bergmann said.
"ELL is one of the most significant impacts we've seen in the past five years," Bergmann said. "So significant that the school district totally revamped its ELL program for the 2001-02 school year."
Prior to last year, all ELL students at the elementary level were bused to Ridgeview Elementary School. That's where all the resources and personnel were housed for educating students who spoke Spanish as a first language.
But on the first day of each school year, the number of Spanish-speaking students kept increasing.
"But the population continued to increase and had gotten to a level where it was not best for any of the students involved," Bergmann said. "Some classes had as many Spanish-speaking students as English-speaking students. It impacted that school significantly."
Last year the school district had to change with the times.
"That model was very effective seven years ago when the population was 20," Bergmann said. "When it grew to 45 or 50, it had a significant impact."
For the first time last year, all ELL students at the elementary level went to school in their neighborhood schools.
By sending students back to neighborhood schools, the new model is more "family friendly," Bergmann said, adding it was also necessary.
Last year two additional aides were hired and a full-time coordinator was hired to oversee the entire ELL program. Prior to that change, the district was relying on the services of three part-time aides. It now has five aides and one full-time ELL coordinator.
About $115,000 of the school's budget was put toward the revamped ELL program, about a $50,000 increase from previous years.
"We always try to take the needs of students and build the best model we can," Bergmann said. "We've been in a flux the past five years trying to figure out what program is best. It's been five years of research and education for us."
Bergmann explained in simple terms the district's approach to educating ELL students.
"The goal is to immerse them in the English language and help them be successful in school," he said.
A helping hand
Dustin Ence, a 1994 Moffat County High School graduate, took the job as ELL coordinator last year. Ence went on a two-year mission in Brazil and majored in social studies in college. He had a minor in English as a second language.
He chose his minor, he said, because he thought it would increase his effectiveness as a social studies teacher. But his education and experience in Brazil made him the best candidate to coordinate the ELL program in Moffat County schools.
"District-wide it was a challenging year," Ence said of his first year on the job. "Because it was my first year, I didn't know what to expect."
Especially when on his first day of work he found out the ELL population had jumped from 87 the previous year to more than 100 last year.
"It's hard to make any projections," he said. "Last year at the high school we had planned on three ELL students and ended up with 15."
Ence fills the role as full-time ELL aide at Craig Middle School, then oversees the activities of the ELL programs at all of the schools.
"My goal is to help teachers learn the skills necessary to teach non-English-speaking students," he said. "They do not necessarily need to know how to speak Spanish. I try to help the teachers develop strategies."
Those strategies include being more visual and hands-on when teaching a class.
Ence said part of his and the job of the other ELL aides is to aide in communication in all everyday occurrences.
One night he attended a school board meeting with a Spanish-speaking family to interpret the family's concerns about the bus service in their area.
He also sits in and interprets in the principal's office when a Spanish-speaking student is disciplined. If an ELL student has to go to the nurse, Ence must be there to interpret.
"That's why it's important to have a full-time ELL person at the building all day," he said.
He's even dealt with situations that a few years ago he never would have dreamed he would be dealing with, he said.
"I was looking on tampax.com to find out things about the menstrual cycle in Spanish," he said. "That's something you never thought you would be doing."
Breaking down barriers
In addition to interpretation, he tries to help break the cultural barriers.
"In the school system, we need to value these students' culture and language yet encourage them to learn English," he said.
He also tries to explain the actions of some ELL students to teachers who might not understand.
One of the biggest challenges for many of the Hispanic students new to United States schools is maintaining the fast-paced schedule and deadlines set forth in the school system, he said.
"They struggle with that in our culture," he said. "Here it's do this, do that, boom, boom, boom. Their culture is not like that. In their culture, if it takes six people to get a job done, six people get together to get the job done but they will eventually get it done."
Jill Hafey, a third-grade teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School, had her first ELL student three years ago her first year of teaching.
Hafey said she is hesitant to describe educating students that speak a different language as hers as a "challenge."
"It's an opportunity for me to learn a different way of life," she said. "I view it as an opportunity, not a challenge."
Since she started teaching three years ago, Hafey has had plenty of "opportunities."
She has had up to three Spanish-speaking students in her class at one time.
"It's a partnership," she said. "I'm fortunate to be teaching somebody the language I love."
Learning from each other
Not only has she educated Spanish-speaking students for three years, but they have educated her, Hafey said.
"I've learned how to greet them in the morning," she said. "We don't understand what it's like to walk into a classroom and to not be able to talk to anyone. I know a few phrases and that helps to melt down the barrier. They feel a little more comfortable."
Another technique used in class is to exemplify the skills that Spanish-speaking students have.
During a vocabulary lesson, she said she'll ask the student how a word is said in Spanish so the English-speaking students can learn.
"These students are so eager to learn," she said. "Some students are so eager they voluntarily stay in at recess to learn."
Hafey has learned a few lessons herself in the past three years on how to properly educate students who speak a different language.
"At first I thought you could give them a book and they would learn how to read," she said. "It's easy to memorize a book. But when I asked them about the word 'tree,' they had no idea what it was."
The key is to be more visual, she said. A vocabulary lesson involving the word "tree" might require taking a student outside to show them a tree and what the word means.
Another way to raise the comfort level of the students, she said, is for her to try to speak her limited Spanish vocabulary to them.
"They laugh when I try to speak Spanish," she said. "It makes them more comfortable. They see I'm human and make mistakes, too."
In three short years, Hafey said she has come to embrace the opportunity to educate Spanish-speaking students.
"Three years ago it was kind of scary," she said. "But now I would love to have three or more ELL students every year because it is such a learning opportunity."
While teachers like Hafey are learning how to properly teach Spanish-speaking students, they'll be the first to admit they couldn't do it without the help of aides.
"We've been blessed with Martha (Martinez)," she said.
Nidia Martinez, the student who wants to return to the school district to work in the ELL program, attributes her success in Moffat County schools to Martha Martinez, who helped her learn the ropes in the school system.
"Martha has been incredible," Nidia Martinez said. "It's because of her that I decided to become a teacher."
Martha Martinez has been an aide for Spanish-speaking students in the school district for nine years. Like Ence, Martinez said her job is to break down the barrier formed when students cannot speak the same language as their teacher and other students in the classroom.
"We do a lot," she said. "We're like counselors because when students have a problem, they come to you for help."
Aides give students what often cannot be provided for them at home.
"In many situations, parents help their children with their homework, but many of these parents can't," she said. "That's why we're there, to help them with their homework."
According to numbers from the United States Department of Education, the Moffat County School District is not alone in its effort to try and meet the needs of students who speak limited English.
The number of students who speak limited English, most of them Hispanic, has doubled to 5 million in the past decade.
Right now there is one teacher for every 100 Spanish-speaking students nationwide.
The ideal student-to-teacher ratio is 17 to one, which means there is a need for 290,000 instructors nationwide, according to Market Data Retrieval, a group that keeps national education statistics.