There are students in Columbia who, if asked, would not be able to express their fears or excitement about returning to school this year to their classmates. Their inability to convey those feelings is not due to any kind of disability. Instead, it is due to their inability to speak English.
“When I came here, I didn’t know anything,” said 7-year-old Laura Valencia, a second-grader at Paxton Keeley Elementary School.
Valencia arrived in the United States when she was 4. As a pre-schooler, she received English as a second laguage instruction and now can translate for her mother as needed.
Valencia will be one of more than 400 Spanish-speaking students enrolled in the Columbia Public School District, according to Judy Trujillo, English language learner coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
There has been a significant increase in the number of English language learners, or ELL’s, from last school year, which had an official count of 496, including all non-English speaking students. The district is still in the process of enrolling students and will not have an accurate number for two weeks.
“We’re seeing a huge increase, and it’s hard to predict the numbers of students at each school,” Trujillo said.
That uncertainty has proved to be a challenge for the district as it tries to staff the schools accordingly. Part of the problem is that some schools in the district have the infrastructure in place to serve these students, and others don’t. Columbia Public Schools, which is required to offer services for English language learners, buses students to the schools that can serve them appropriately.
“The problem we have is not so much a shortage as it is of a challenge to maximize our resources,” Trujillo said. “It’s hard to know what staffing we need because families are coming in every day.”
The school district is seeing more teachers who are becoming ELL certified, Trujillo said. These teachers, who do not have to be bilingual, are certified to instruct students who speak a variety of languages. Some of the most common languages spoken at schools throughout the district are Spanish, Korean, Russian, Bosnian, Chinese and Vietnamese, Trujillo said.
At Blue Ridge Elementary School, Cindy Hutchinson works to integrate ELL students fully into English-speaking classrooms. She serves as an ESL teacher and the Spanish community liaison. Blue Ridge operates an ESL pullout program where students are taken out of class for direct instruction.
“Kindergartners are taken out of class for 30 minutes a day, and the rest of the students are taken out of class for 45 minutes each day,” Hutchinson said.
As the Spanish community liaison, Hutchinson works closely with concerned parents and students. Her responsibilities include interpreting, which comes in handy for parent-teacher conferences, she said.
Hutchinson is also a native Spanish speaker whose connection with the parents has proved invaluable.
“I try to get the word around and let the parents know I’m here,” she said. “I try to get the parents into the schools.”
Blue Ridge has the highest number of Latino students in the district. The majority of these kids are ELL students. New students need the most help, Hutchinson said.
“Those students often have a hard time with such basic things as learning the routine of a school day and just getting acclimated to life in American schools,” she said.
Groups like Centro Latino, which provides services to the mid-Missouri Latino community, have been heavily involved in ensuring that ELL’s receive the needed assistance.
“We serve as a bridge between families and the school district, and we provide services that help those parents adjust,” said Sarah Herndon, education coordinator at Centro Latino.
Herndon said the school’s programs have been successful. “We’re always trying to increase parent involvement, and we’ve had success increasing literacy, socialization with other kids and getting kids to finish their homework,” Herndon said. “We’ve had about the expected success from a program like this.”
Valencia attended Centro Latino’s after-school program all last year and intends to go again this year.
“There were volunteers that helped us with our homework, and we’d get to go home around 5 or 6,” Valencia said. “If we didn’t have any homework, we’d get to go play.”