Bridging the gap

Schools help Spanish speakers adapt to English-speaking classes

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After watching his daughter struggling with mathematics, Roberto Gomez picked up the telephone one night and dialed the number of her sixth-grade teacher. A short time later, Gomez was getting a math lesson of his own.

Now, father and daughter work together nightly on math problems, and her skills -- not to mention her confidence -- have improved tremendously.

For Gomez, the experience was just another example of how the Steamboat Springs School District has worked to provide a meaningful education for his three children, all of whom are native Spanish speakers.

"I have no complaints at all," Gomez said. "I'm very impressed with the program."

Gomez, a longtime resident of the area, is bilingual, a skill that has enabled him to take an active role in his children's English education.

But for many others in the local immigrant community, the language barrier continues to be an obstacle to the education of their children.

On Wednesday, more than two dozen non- or limited-English-speaking parents went to Soda Creek Elementary School for a meeting many hoped would be the beginning of increased efforts to bridge the gap between immigrant families and the school system their children attend.

Seated in a large circle, some holding their children in their laps, the parents -- primarily Hispanic -- met with elementary principals Judy Harris and John DeVincentis and English as a Second Language aides Summer Laws and Elizabeth Hill to discuss a variety of education-related issues. Laws, who addressed the group in English and Spanish, also served as a translator for Harris and DeVincentis.

"We're dedicated to meeting the needs of your children, and we're looking for ways to partner with you," Harris said told the group of parents. "I'm looking forward to your input so we can know your children's and your needs so we can work together."

During the next hour, the group aired concerns, expressed thanks, brainstormed ideas and showed support for a proposed monthly or bi-monthly meeting.

Shy and hesitant to speak at first, the parents slowly opened up to discuss their thoughts about the school system and whether it's meeting the needs of their children.

A father of two said his third-grade child is doing well in school and learning English quickly while his eighth-grade son continues to struggle with reading and writing in English, even in his third year in the district.

A young mother said it would help her children if teachers spoke slower in class and asked the students whether they understood what she was saying or teaching. Many immigrant children are embarrassed to ask for clarification when they think all of the other students understand, she said.

The parents of a middle school boy said their son continues to struggle in math and often is too embarrassed to ask for help.

But the communication issues go beyond those between teachers and students. One father said he sent his children to school on a holiday because he simply didn't know schools were closed. He and others said it would be helpful for the district to provide more information in Spanish to non-English-speaking students and their families.

District schools are working to convert many basic student forms into Spanish, Harris said, and she agreed more needs to be done to translate daily and weekly school information into Spanish.

There was positive feedback, too. Several parents complimented the district for its efforts and expressed pleasure at the progress their children have made. They emphasized the work of the district's ESL aides, who often serve as parent-teacher conference translators and the go-between connecting the district to its ESL families.

Almost all of the parents said they were interested in a monthly or bi-monthly meeting where they could learn how to help their children with homework, practice computer skills and learn some English.

The meeting was a great start toward better collaboration between the district and ESL families, Harris and DeVincentis said.

"It's obvious to me we're all dedicated to doing the best we can for this population," Harris said. "This was amazing."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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