Breaking down language barriers in Columbia Public Schools

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — It started small, with just one teacher and about 30 kids. But in the six years since it was adopted by Columbia Public Schools, the English Language Learners program has grown quickly.

Currently the program has 630 students speaking 43 languages in all but two of Columbia’s schools.

The program, which provides English language instruction to non-native speakers, is one many programs Columbia Public Schools uses to enhance education, either by mandate of the state or the innovation of its teachers.

‘A work in progress’

“We’ve made great strides in the district since we first got started,” said Jenifer Albright-Borts, coordinator of Columbia’s program. “We have great support from our teachers, our large group of interpreters and from our schools.”

Although the program has been affected by the economic downturn – the district had to cut two teachers last year – growth of the program shows no signs of slowing, Albright-Borts said. As new non-English-speaking students enter Columbia’s public schools, the district will expand to accommodate them, just as it would for an English-speaking student.

“When we only had (the program) at a few sites, we used to transport kids to a certain site,” Albright-Borts explained. “We put all the kids back in their home schools this year. I think that’s been very helpful."

“Now that our kids are in their home schools, a third-grader’s a third-grader, and it’d be like if any third-grader came in,” she said. “There’s space for them at that site.”

The program receives supplementary money from Title III funding, which is used to pay for teacher resources and professional development. The 19 English Language Learner teachers in the Columbia School District are paid for out of local funds.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Albright-Borts said. “We’ve changed things around some. A lot of those changes have been very positive for the program.”

Becoming an English Language Learner

All students are automatically screened with the Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey upon entering Columbia Public Schools.

Students also receive a language questionnaire in their enrollment; if they indicate a language other than English spoken in their home, they are given a second assessment to see if they qualify for the services.

LAS Links, given in February, is the annual English language proficiency assessment used by the state of Missouri. The test measures oral, reading and writing English abilities. A score of three or lower in any of these areas qualifies a student for the services; the lower the score, the more services a student receives.

Using scores to determine how much time a student spends in the English Language Lerner classroom has been a positive change for the program, Albright-Borts said.


In the classroom

Susan Ramsey, who teaches non-English-speaking students three days a week at Fairview Elementary, has been working in the program for 16 years.

Currently, 18 students are in the program at Fairview. The students spend, on average, about four to eight hours per week in her class, depending on their assessed level of need. 

“We speak, listen, read and write English every day,” Ramsey said. “I also choose my own themes to teach, in which we incorporate art, social studies and science experiments.”

An English Language Lerner teacher focuses on the building blocks of English ability, such as phonemes, morphemes and base words. The emphasis is on cultivating literacy and "an understanding that these words on this paper mean something,” Albright-Borts said.

Sometimes, however, a teacher crosses into areas like math or science, especially at the secondary level.

“This is less of an issue at the elementary level,” Albright-Borts said. “Mainstream teachers in grades K-2 are working so much with language that sometimes students at that level aren’t pulled as much.”

In her classroom, Ramsey draws on a variety of tools – body language, bilingual dictionaries, picture books and other students – in order to communicate with several students speaking different foreign languages.

Student success

The program's success rate is qualitative, Albright-Borts said.

“Second-language acquisition, especially academic language, takes anywhere from 10 to 12 years to really get it,” she said. “It’s not abnormal to have a student receive English services for over five years."

“It has a lot to do with what happens at home, and then their intrinsic motivation. You know, just like American kids.”

Albright-Borts qualifies success in her program as a firm grasp of academic English.

“To be able to use it, in content. And comprehend text,” she said. “I think reading is everything. That’s how all of us gain knowledge, how we were able to succeed in school."

“That’s the kind of success you want for these kids, to have the same opportunities as native English speakers.”

‘The best education possible’

The program is about creating a place for Columbia’s diverse community in its public schools.

“As long as we have international students coming into Columbia's public schools, it is our responsibility to provide them with the best education possible,” Ramsey said.

She believes this is best done by teaching the students to use and understand America’s dominant language and encouraging them to maintain their first language.

“For those who plan to make the U.S. their permanent home, it is to our advantage to do the best we can to ensure that they become valuable members of society, just as we do for children born in this country,” Ramsey said.



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