ELL students learn despite language barrier

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— At a time when most students are trying to find a sense of self during turbulent "tween" years, local English Language Learners are living two lives - one in English and one in their native tongue.

"They have to be somebody completely different at school than they are at home," said Cathy Girard, the ELL teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

"At home, that's their culture, their family. And at school, it's a completely different culture, and they have to abide by different rules," she said. "There is a line where, once they go to school, they put on a different face, they put on a different façade - they put on a different everything. Then once they go home, they see that they're also different than their parents."

The ELL population at the middle school is 22, an increase of four students from last year. The Steamboat Springs School District has enrolled 109 ELL students as of Oct. 1, an increase from 92 students last year.

"We don't have the data on exactly why more people are coming to this area, but we have found it is not because of the construction jobs in town," said Summer Laws, executive director of Communidad Integrada, a nonprofit organization that looks to integrate immigrant communities into Routt County.

"Many of those workers are coming up from Denver and leaving their families for a period of time," Laws said. "The ones whose children may be coming to the district may not be temporary. They may be moving here to be part of the community."

The School District's interim superintendent, Sandra Smyser, was once an ELL teacher in California. She said that in addition to the inherent social problems for ELL students, the academic challenges are also daunting.

When ELL students first enroll, they take the Colorado English Language Assessment test. Each subsequent year, the students are retested to see progress.

"I would have to say the biggest challenge for the students is that the curriculum marches on while they are learning English," Smyser said. "They can't just take two years off to learn English and then go to school. If you come in as a fifth grader and you don't speak English, the whole fifth-grade curriculum is going by. You have to do both at the same time - learn English while trying to keep them caught up in the curriculum."

No typical day

At Strawberry Park Elementary School, the ELL population has grown more than any other district school - up nine students from last year's enrollment of 27.

ELL teacher Susie Gruben said it's difficult to generalize what the average school day is like for an English language learner.

"Every student is assigned a classroom like every other student and has a classroom teacher," she said. "I'll come into the classrooms and help teach writing. It's about inclusion, trying to provide for the student's needs while integrating it into what the class is doing, and that they are meeting the curriculum standards at that grade level."

Gruben and Girard are two of the four ELL teachers hired by the district at the start of the 2006-07 school year.

"Every student looks different depending on what their needs are," Gruben said. "Some kids come in with absolutely no English, some kids come with a little English, some kids come in with no English but literacy in their native language, while some non-English speakers are illiterate in their native language."

At Soda Creek, the ELL population has increased by three students, to 33 English Language Learners.

Soda Creek Elementary School ELL teacher Tiffany Gebhardt said the schoolroom vocabulary, not the social vocabulary, is the biggest hurdle for ELL students trying to catch up with their classmates.

"It's very individualistic, but it's fairly common to say that students may need five to 10 years for language acquisition to be at a level where you can use English in an academic setting on a level with your English-speaking peers," she said.

Battling misconceptions

As the district's ELL program moves into its second year, ELL teachers say the biggest misconception is that ELL students are not being taught English, with instruction in their native tongue.

"People say, 'why aren't they learning English?'" said Gruben. "And they are learning English. Many of them are not participating in the Spanish language program because we are pulling them out at that time to learn more English."

Steamboat Springs High School ELL teacher Leslie Gumbrecht said fellow students can be a demoralizing influence on English Language Learners.

"A lot of kids at the high school go out of their way to be friendly to the ELL students, they go to them to practice their Spanish, and there are other kids who resent the fact they are here," she said. "It definitely goes both ways."

The high school's ELL population is up just one student from last year's enrollment of 17.

Girard said that one misconception is that every student speaks Spanish and is from Mexico.

"Yes, some of these children may have been brought here illegally, but my thought of it is this: The kids didn't choose," she said. "I don't care if they are illegal or not, they deserve the same education as everyone else does."

Girard said during a parent conference last year with a Spanish-speaking family, the mother and father broke down in tears once she told them their child's intellect was exceptional and he should go to college one day.

"He was the best in math compared to the general education students," she said. "I asked the parents if he was going to college and all they did was cry because they are like, 'we came here for a better life, but he can't go to college because of (being illegal).'"

"That is just something we have to deal with as ELL teachers," she said.

- To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208

or e-mail mmccollum@steamboatpilot.com

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