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Columbia Public Schools' English Language Learners program continues to grow

Monday, May 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The English lessons at the Midway Heights Baptist Church are part of the Columbia Public Schools' efforts this year to help families of English Language Learners (ELL) students develop English literacy.

COLUMBIA — On a mid-April Tuesday night, in a small room on the lower level of Midway Heights Baptist Church, Courtney Siewert led a group of adults through a scripted conversation. In pairs, they worked through the lines on a board at the front of the room, speaking haltingly and laughing when they messed up.

"What is your name?"

"My name is _____."

"How do you spell that?"

"Spell it (in English)."

Siewert coached them, helping them say the right letters and remember to indicate where to put spaces in their names. A teacher for Columbia Public Schools' English Language Learners, or ELL, program, Siewert works at Russell Boulevard and Shepard Boulevard Elementary schools throughout the week.

On some Tuesday nights, though, she turns her attention to some of the district's parents, helping them learn the basic English they need to live in Columbia, such as how to spell their names and how to make a 911 call.

The district now has 827 students in its ELL program, up from 704 students last year and 604 five years ago.

The main charge of the district's 19 ELL teachers is teaching children how to read, write and learn in a language other than the one spoken at home.

But the teachers also make sure non-English-speaking parents understand how to be involved in their children's education. Using interpreters, dictionaries and other resources, they work to get important information home and draw families into the school communities.

One of the ELL department's initiatives this year was to reach out to parents and give them support where they need it, Siewert said.

"It's difficult when you don't know the language to navigate the educational system here, so we're trying to support them as much and get them involved as much as possible," she said.

Cathy Fulkerson, an ELL teacher at West Junior High School, said the education of students is a cooperative arrangement between homes and school.

"School is here to provide the expertise in child development and, in particular, curriculum advancement," Fulkerson said. "The parents and the guardians are the people who are there to encourage and advocate for their child, to give the old rah-rah for their successes, and to help them realize that if they're off track, that they need to get on track, and the parents can help monitor that."

Bridging the language gap

Stacey Karabegovic, an ELL teacher at West Boulevard and Benton Elementary schools, said the first big task in working with an ELL family is figuring out what language the parents and children speak and read in.

In some cases, the adults and children speak different languages, or children of different ages within a family speak different languages. Karabegovic works past those things to figure out what languages the families want information sent home in, as well as who in the family speaks English.

Karabegovic does her best to send home resources in each family's home language, such as information to study for the citizenship test. She finds bilingual dictionaries and stories online that she prints, binds and sends home for parents to study.

She sometimes uses Google Translate to help her send short, informal notes, such as "Pajama Day tomorrow," "Tennis shoes on Tuesdays" or, especially for newer families who have trouble getting used to the schedule, "No school tomorrow."

"I can write 'no school' in pretty much any language," Karabegovic said.

Karabegovic also teaches a group of moms English after school twice a week while their children are at tutoring.

Making information clear

Maricela Politte, an ELL teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary School, lets parents know she is available before and after her contracted school hours to take questions — for example, about materials they can't read because they were sent home in English. A lot of families prefer that she give them information verbally, whether by phone or face to face, she said.

Karabegovic said the teachers live by the district's interpreter list, which is updated monthly. The interpreters on the list are approved and paid by the district; any others are volunteers.

Some classroom teachers put bright Post-it notes with an interpreter's name on important school materials, Karabegovic said. That tells the parents the information is important, and they should contact the interpreter.

Karabegovic said the ELL teachers appreciate when classroom teachers take extra efforts to make sure ELL families are informed of what opportunities they have for events and programs such as trips or summer camps.

Fulkerson forwards updated interpreter lists to staff members in the school, so they have the option to contact interpreters and get what they need without having to go through her.

In situations in which it is especially important that parents understand the information they are being given, such as at special education evaluations and immigration workshops, schools make sure to have interpreters present every step of the way, depending on parent needs, district ELL coordinator Sushama Nagarkar said.

The interpreters play the vital role of making sure collaboration between the home and the schools works effectively, she said. She said it's all based on what the parents need.

Teachers also get help from MU students from the Office of Service Learning and other programs and from community volunteers. They help teachers translate materials, make calls and answer parents' questions.

A group of Spanish-speaking MU service learning students working at Blue Ridge translates reminder notes to parents, answers questions before and after school and helps at evening events, Politte said. They act as support for her, she said, and parents get comfortable with the students and occasionally even ask about a specific student semesters later.

Events help develop English literacy

The district gets funding for the ELL program from Title III of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. This year, the program has tried to use the money for developing family literacy and educating parents about their rights. 

The Tuesday night lessons at Midway Heights Baptist Church are one part of those efforts. Heather Croy, the district’s social studies and ELL secretary, attends the church, where a group of ELL parents from Southeast Asia also goes, and she suggested and helped facilitate holding the nights there.

Siewert said all the ELL teachers are trying to teach a few classes at the church.

On some weeknights, parents can go to Smithton Middle School or Derby Ridge or West Boulevard Elementary schools and work with Rosetta Stone, a language instruction software. Croy recently looked at the progress of parents going through the software at Smithton and found they are learning a lot.

The district also has held several curriculum nights this year in which they taught ELL parents ways to help their students learn. The activities also help parents struggling with English, Nagarkar said.

Schools host other events to involve ELL families. In the fall, Blue Ridge worked with an MU service learning student to host a tour of the Columbia Public Library for ELL families. They had Spanish-speaking interpreters on hand. Blue Ridge Principal Tim Majerus said the event drew about 40 people, including students.

Family members said they had not been aware of a lot of the library's resources, but with interpreters available they were able to ask questions and learn more about the resources, Politte said. The event helped get families started, some getting library cards for parents and students, she said, and many children are going back and using the library now.

"We want our ELL families not just to come to events that are designed specifically for English language learners but also to come to our school-wide events, and we want them to understand that they're an important part of our entire school culture," Majerus said.

Politte said she thinks the parents are feeling involved. They attend events and ask questions, and some have asked to go on field trips. "They don't speak the language, but they're willing to participate and be a part of it, and I think that’s big," she said.

Needs go beyond language help

ELL families' attendance at school events can vary due to issues with transportation or finding babysitters, Nagarkar said.

Some parents don't attend because of a simple reluctance to come to school because of cultural barriers, she said.

"Parents are extremely enthusiastic, but it's a huge challenge," she said. "For many of them, it's so different and so new and so scary."

Another challenge is that many of the families live in poverty, Siewert said. It's difficult for parents to find time to support their students; some have two jobs or work evenings and only get to see their children once or twice a week, she said.

It's the same issue you see in all cultures, she said, but the language problem makes it more complicated for ELL families. They don't know resources or how to navigate the system because they don’t know the language.

When families come in with a lot of needs, Politte wants to connect them to resources to get housing, food and other essentials. The school connects them to school counselors and other people in the community who can help, with parent permission.

"You want your students to come to school but also know that they're going home to a safe, comfortable place," she said.

One of her student workers has been researching where families can get preventive health resources locally. When they get the information finalized, they plan to share it with families at other schools. Majerus has been a great mentor in that project as well, Politte said.

Fulkerson said her experience working with Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbia, part of Catholic Charities, taught her the importance of having the community and having people work together. 

"Working with ELL families is a complex system of work," Fulkerson said. "We are not just teachers. We have the role, in many cases, of helping them find resources for medical care. We are in the role of helping them find jobs, to help them get their own education and to work in the adult education program at Douglass High School, where they can get adult education and language instruction."

ELL parents sometimes have questions for teachers beyond what goes on in the classroom.

The parents of younger children often want information about child development, such as what they should be expected to do at certain ages, Fulkerson said. The parents are interested in learning about discipline techniques and how to manage childhood concerns, such as when children do not want to their homework, can't sleep or are depressed and cry a lot. Parents of teenagers want to know how to put up with their teenagers' emotions and hormones.

Fulkerson said ELL parents need some of the same things all parents need, so usually what the school provides to all parents are the same things ELL parents need. It’s just harder for ELL parents to get the information unless teachers help bridge the gap, she said.

Parents ask simple questions, too: this year, two asked Karabegovic where to find Easter egg hunts.

Encouraging communication

Politte said Blue Ridge had a welcome meeting at the beginning of the year for both new and current ELL families. Parents were encouraged to attend parent-teacher conferences because their voices matter.

She also told the parents that the district makes every effort to have interpreters available at parent-teacher conferences. Politte said parents have said it’s a relief to know that the school works to have interpreters at the conferences and that the teachers are willing to help them understand.

Despite the language difficulty, parents do attend parent-teacher conferences. Majerus said ELL families had 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences at Blue Ridge last year, and Karabegovic said 100 percent attendance is usually "a given,"  despite challenges with scheduling conferences in different languages. Teachers, principals and interpreters are all involved in the scheduling process.

Fulkerson said she thinks parents would come talk to her more often if they didn’t face a language barrier, but that’s just the nature of the situation, she said.

"Once parents realize that they are more than welcome, in my classroom, in the school, I see them a little more often," she said.

Benefits for teachers

The ELL program’s efforts are aimed toward helping parents and students, but there are benefits for teachers, too.

"They educate us as well," Politte said. "I mean, we learn from them about their culture, their language… it's a give and take. I think the families bring a lot."

Last year, a group of mothers gave Politte input that helped her develop her bilingual website, telling her what kind of information they wanted and needed.

"I think the main reward is just seeing the families here," Politte said.

One mom came to the school to ask questions almost every day for a month. She apologized for coming so often, but Politte told her it was great that she came because it meant she felt welcome.

Politte said some families still call even after their children have moved to new schools, and she works with the ELL teachers at the higher levels if something's going on.

"It's a constant network," she said.

One family that moved to a new school returned to Blue Ridge with flowers for a former teacher.

Fulkerson has had students invite her to family or religious functions, which provides her more opportunities to meet families. "It's kind of like a big family," she said.

Nagarkar said it's heartening when parents remember from one week to the next what they've learned in the prior weeks, when they're always smiling and eager to work hard trying to get their own skills.

"It's very gratifying when parents turn out in large numbers at parent nights. If we can provide special ed support to a student who really needs it, that's also very gratifying — when you see kids blossom."


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