The first day in a new school is tough on any student, as it was two weeks ago for eighth-grader Alejandro Rodriguez.
The shy, well-dressed 14-year-old didn't speak to any of his classmates that day or any day since. It's not that he doesn't want to; it's that he can't.
Rodriguez is like many eighth-graders in that he enjoys watching television and playing soccer. His favorite academic subject is science. For Rodriguez, who moved here in July from Sinaloa, Mexico, the toughest part of adjusting to his new school is learning its language.
"It's very difficult to speak English," he said in Spanish.
Rodriguez doesn't speak English. And he's not alone.
Enrollment of non-English-speaking students has more than doubled in the Steamboat Springs School District since the end of the 2002-03 school year, when 12 students in the 1,900-student district were classified as "English Language Learners."
Just two weeks into the fall semester, that number could be as high as 30 students. Eighteen new students who speak a language other than English at home have registered for school since the end of August.
Though English Language Learner enrollment has been on the rise the past several years, district officials say this year's dramatic increase caught them by surprise.
"Our returning population of English Language Learners seems to be pretty stable," said Content Standards Director Kelly Stanford. "But I couldn't have predicted that 18 new kids would show up the first two weeks of school."
The district, however, wasn't completely unprepared for such a jump, Stanford said.
For one, Stanford and Michelle Miller, a district teacher on special assignment, have attended Colorado Department of Education seminars on implementing programs to meet the demanding needs of English Language Learners. A new district administrative policy adopted in May outlines specific procedures -- in accordance with federal and state guidelines -- for identifying, assessing, instructing and monitoring English Language Learners, and the district hired Danielle Chappell as its first full-time English as a Second Language aide.
Still, more needs to be done, including the possibility of increasing ESL staff, district officials admit.
"It's really a new and growing challenge," Superintendent Donna Howell said. "We may have to add staff as we go. We will continue to assess it, but we're meeting the needs right now."
Minority populations are growing across the country, and the trend is no different in Colorado or on its Western Slope. Statistics released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate Colorado's Hispanic population has increased by more than 200,000 over the past two years, affecting resort areas such as Steamboat Springs as well as the larger metropolitan areas of the Front Range.
District administrators are quick to point out that English Language Learners aren't only Hispanic. Italian, Norwegian, Russian and Japanese students are just some of the other nationalities represented within the district's student population.
But a vast majority of the English Language Learners are Hispanic, which can be advantageous for those students and the district, school officials say.
English Language Learners at the same grade level usually are clustered together in the same class, which provides a level of comfort and security for those students while allowing them to work together in conquering the language barrier.
But when the primary goal is rapid English acquisition, clustering can be a challenging balancing act. Teachers want English Language Learners to feel secure in their new settings, but language acquisition can be delayed if they rely too heavily on peers who speak the same non-English language.
"I feel there's an advantage of putting three or four kids together in a class, but there also is the concern of exclusion, whether social or academic," Soda Creek Elementary School Principal Judy Harris said. "We want to support the kids, but we don't want to isolate them."
The school's first priority, however, is making each student feel safe and comfortable, Harris said.
"Their basic needs need to be met first," she said. "They need to feel safe and secure."
Those needs include making sure the students understand bus schedules and other nonacademic needs.
The district also stresses that students need to know the schools value their primary language and culture, and it doesn't want students or their families to think it wants to replace either.
The district uses a standardized procedure to identify the needs of each English Language Learner. A home language survey is administered to every student upon enrollment in the district. If the student indicates a language other than English is spoken at his or her home, the child is automatically identified as an English Language Learner and assessed in his or her English proficiency.
According to the results of the assessments, which are administered individually by Chappell, a student is designated as an English Language Learner or reclassified as English proficient. The parents of ELL-designated students are notified of their child's status and must give their consent before ESL services can begin.
The district operates under an ESL pull-out program, meaning English Language Learners are pulled from their classrooms to work on English acquisition with Chappell, the district's ESL aide. But the majority of an English Language Learner's day is spent in his or her regular classroom, where teachers face the constant challenges of keeping the student engaged and up to speed with the rest of the class.
Soda Creek Elementary third-grade teacher Allyson Spear faces those challenges daily in her class, which includes two English Language Learners. Spear's limited knowledge of Spanish has helped her work with those students, but she has found hand gestures and acting things out to be the most effective ways of keeping the English Language Learners involved in class lessons and activities.
Plus, she has the help of Karimbe Jiminez, a third-grader who first came to the district as a kindergartner who didn't speak a word of English.
Today, Jiminez is a good example of what the district hopes to accomplish with all its English Language Learners. The 8-year-old girl is now considered fluent in English, which she says she was able to learn quickly once she was immersed in an all-English classroom.
She sympathizes with Sebastian Flores, one of her classmates who recently moved to Steamboat and knows virtually no English.
"It was hard when I first started school," Jiminez said. "Kids started talking to me and I couldn't understand. But then I learned (English) by talking and listening to them. It took me about three months before I started understanding the language."
She said she has encouraged Flores and another English Language Learners in her class to stay positive.
"I told Sebastian that school was fun, and you get to learn lots of stuff, and you'll learn English fast," she said. "He was excited. He wants to learn English fast."
The district's ultimate goal is that English Language Learners become fluent in speaking, listening, reading and writing English.
When these goals are accomplished, students are reclassified.
"Reclassification is the end of the process," Stanford said. "Once they learn English, they have the potential to do as well as any other students in the district."
The district will continue to monitor reclassified students for at least two years to make sure academic progress doesn't slip, Stanford said.
Despite the numerous challenges, the district says the increase of English Language Learners is a positive step for the schools and the community.
"I think diversity makes us a richer school and community," Harris said.
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