Finding their voice: English-language learner students working to fit in while maintaining cultural identity
November 3, 2013
Inside Room 221 at Steamboat Springs High School, students' projects are stapled to the wall, words are scribbled on the whiteboard and six large, circular tables are spread across the room.
Students begin filing in for their 10:05 a.m. class and slump into their chairs. After all, it is Friday, and it's the last day of the quarter. The first round of assignments from the semester needs to be turned in for grading, and some students are understandably having some midterm blues.
In many ways, it's your typical high school class. But in some ways, it's like stepping into a different country.
To kick off the class, the Steamboat teacher fires off a question to the room of 19 teens, and immediately a student blurts out her answer.
"It's like when you talk to a little kid —"
"En Español, por favor," the instructor interrupts.
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During the 90-minute Spanish for Spanish speakers class, the 19 students, many of whom are English-language learners, must speak in their native language.
It's a class high school ELL teacher Dani Booth lobbied to have offered again to students after a three-year hiatus.
In response to a perceived lack of interest in the class, Booth went to each of the 40-some students on campus listed as native Spanish speakers and asked who would be interested.
Booth got her signatures and, in turn, got the class back on the schedule.
It's just one of the ways schools within the Steamboat Springs School District are working to meet ELL students' needs. The Spanish for Spanish speakers class is a small part of an answer to a question that has been steadily growing in the district during the past decade.
In 2000, Steamboat had 14 students enrolled in ELL programs, Soda Creek Elementary School ELL teacher Ann Coon said. In 2013, the district has an unprecedented 210 students enrolled as ELL.
In 2001, one ELL paraprofessional facilitated the entire district, according to Soda Creek Elementary School Principal Michele Miller said. Now, the district employs four full-time ELL teachers.
"You get to a point where you start to look at how much can four people do if these numbers continue to grow?" Coon said.
While the total enrollment within the district has experienced a steady climb in the past decade, so too has the number of ELL students and the demand to address their needs.
When 14-year-old Carolina Garcia came to Steamboat Springs from San Jose, Calif., in first grade, Spanish was her first language. English was a distant second.
What little English the now-high school freshman arrived with was intertwined with a heavy accent.
Eight years later, Carolina communicates with her classmates in perfect English.
The key to a successful ELL program, the district's teachers and administrators say, isn't as much about the students' level of English proficiency as it is about getting to them early.
At the elementary level, students learn the foundations of basic English to build on in the future.
That doesn't mean students who enter the ELL program at the high school level are a lost cause. It's just more ground to cover.
"You've got students that are learning English, but they're also having to learn this academic language," district Teaching and Learning Director Marty Lamansky said. "They're having to learn two languages at the same time, and as you go up in grade level, that gets much more complex."
ELL teachers like Booth, Coon, Strawberry Park Elementary School's Kelly Gasau and Steamboat Springs Middle School's Jakie Vosler have a couple of methods to address their students' needs when they are receiving a bevy of instruction in English.
There is push-in, where the teacher will pair up with the regular instructor in a traditional classroom setting. The two then can teach the class together, and the ELL teacher can diagnose students' needs.
There also is pull-out, where teachers will take ELL students out of their regular classrooms for ELL-only instruction.
Gasau — who oversees 68 ELL students at Strawberry Park, by far the most in the district — groups her students by grade level and language proficiency.
There is a bigger purpose behind grouping the student than simply helping them along in their education. Their cultural identity is at stake, and teachers are working to address that.
"At times, if they're isolated, especially early on in kindergarten, they can really shut down," Gasau said. "Their effective filter goes up, and they freeze. They're not taking in any language, so it helps to have other kids hear (their native language). It can be kind of terrifying for them, honestly."
As though they had been waiting hours to be asked, about a dozen hands shoot straight into the air in unison.
"Who has this as their favorite class?" the Spanish for Spanish speakers students were asked.
A few backtrack because, like most high school students, classes like art or physical education are their favorites. One student admits physics is her favorite.
But in Room 221, there is a level of comfort among the 19 students you likely won't see when they're in history or biology class, where the teachers give instructions in English.
They want to understand, but it's hard when English isn't well-received by some of their parents at home.
"They get really mad," freshman Daniela Lujano said about her parents. "They want you to be connected to your 'native language,' they call it. Spanish was my first language, and they tell me, 'You're forgetting,' which is true. We do forget."
It isn't always like this, though.
Using an interpreter, freshman Emmanuel Villa Parra says the Spanish for Spanish speakers class "feels like a relief because everyone speaks Spanish, so I understand this class."
It's finding a cultural balance between teaching these students a new language and preserving their identity — perhaps the most delicate item for teachers and administrators.
At the elementary level, the learning curve is a bit different, but the cultural issues remain the same.
"It just affirms their culture, their language," Gasau said about speaking Spanish. "And beyond just the academic part of it, I've really tried to give them a feeling of pride and ownership of their own language and culture and really embrace that."
When students get to converse in their native language, even for just a small portion of the day, it's not only stabilizing their cultural identity, it's improving their academic scores.
At Soda Creek, the new computer Reflex Math program allows some students to learn math in their native language.
"Their scores are skyrocketing," Soda Creek's Miller said.
Cultural differences among the ELL population go beyond the curriculum. For some of the students who recently left their home countries, school can be a far cry from home. For one first-grader who is new to the U.S., Miller said, the concept of school was foreign.
The vast majority of those on the district's ELL roster are Spanish speakers, but some aren't, and addressing those students' needs can be tricky.
Soda Creek's Coon said the Spanish speakers tend to find one another in the community. For students from China or Uzbekistan, for example, it's not quite the same.
"When you talk about the cultural piece, it is so enormous," Coon said.
A new way of learning
Steamboat's ELL numbers pale in comparison to some other districts in Colorado.
The number of ELL students walking the halls of Steamboat schools has been at about 7 to 9 percent for the past five years. The Hayden and South Routt school districts have been at about 4 to 7 percent during the same span.
But a trip down Colorado Highway 131 from Routt County shows drastically different figures.
In 2012, Eagle County School District reported 35 percent of its 6,408 students were receiving ELL instruction. About an hour east of Eagle, Summit School District reported 25 percent of its 3,156 students were enrolled in ELL programs in 2012.
The steadily growing percentage has Steamboat administrators looking at how a dual-language program would fit into local schools.
Dual-language programs facilitate language learning needs by offering curriculum in alternative languages, typically Spanish. In cases like Eagle, Soda Creek's Coon said, students are getting half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English, their second language.
The programs sometimes cause students to miss academic learning because they are focusing on language learning.
"Sometimes what happens is a student is being taught English, but then they're missing the content," Steamboat high school ELL teacher Booth said. "So they're missing science because we're working on the language. You need both."
As part of the district's process of exploring the possibility of a dual-language program, Booth, Gasau and two other local elementary school teachers attended the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment conference in Milwaukee in October. As part of the conference, the four teachers spent two days hearing how districts across the country have handled shifts in ELL enrollment.
"It's not only the language barrier, but some of these students (from these schools) had never seen a water fountain or a toilet before and had fear of going into the bathroom because what would happen if they flushed the handle?" Booth said.
Lamansky is sifting through about 10 years' worth of trend data across the district, including the number of ELL students and the number of students classified as non-English proficient. He's also closely examining districts across the state with similar trends to Steamboat.
It won't be an overnight process, Lamansky said, but a plan for how to move forward for the 2014-15 school year and beyond will come by the end of January. He and the ELL department then will present recommendations to the Steamboat Springs School Board with a budget package.
A large-scale change would take time, but changes in classrooms and for ELL students could be seen soon.
"We definitely have a trend," Lamansky said. "It's not a surprising trend. We knew this was coming. Now it's a matter of, 'OK, it's time to go more in depth into this and see what's next.'"