Beyond Bilingual Education

Schools try to answer needs of students who speak diverse languages

The languages they speak are foreign to most ears in Spokane: Pashto, from Afghanistan; Cebuano, spoken in the Philippines; Kirghiz and Moldavian from the former Soviet republics.

Nearly 1,300 students attending public schools in Spokane County last year spoke a language other than English, according to a state report on bilingual education. In Spokane Public Schools alone, 928 students spoke at least one of nearly 30 other languages.

That’s why most school districts in the area “immerse” their students in regular classrooms while providing them with additional help.

Research shows that most students learning English perform better when they’re initially taught in both English and their native language. But the state’s teacher shortage, coupled with the diversity among non-English-speaking students, has made it difficult for school districts to do that, according to an annual report released Tuesday by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“It’s hard to find an interpreter who speaks Farsi (the language spoken in Iran),” said Marcia Taes, Central Valley School District’s coordinator for special programs.

“We can’t run bilingual programs,” she said, noting that 22 different languages are spoken among CV’s English-learners. “Still, our goal is to help our students achieve academically, socially and culturally.”

Statewide, the number of students enrolled in English-as-a-second- language (ESL) programs grew to more than 70,400 last year, compared with 28,473 a decade before, according to the report called “Educating Limited-English Proficient Students in Washington State.”

School districts spent about $55.2million in state and local funds to educate these students, the study said. The state also identified 181 different languages spoken by students in Washington state – up from 159 the previous school year.

Because most districts cannot provide training in both English and the students’ native languages, many students end up staying in these ESL programs for a long time and have lower test scores than their English-speaking peers, the report concluded. Last year, about 27 percent of students learning English had been enrolled in special programs for more than three years, according to the state education office. These students also tend to have lower scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the report said.

Writing is especially difficult for students learning English, particularly if their first language uses a different alphabet, educators say. Still, the dropout rate for English-learners is relatively low. Statewide, only 464 students – less than 1percent – dropped out of the ESL programs, although another 8,100 left the programs for “unknown/other reasons.”

“Our kids do well despite the barriers they face,” Taes said. “We’re very proud of them.”

Although teachers acknowledge that research encourages bilingual education, many say it’s nearly impossible in Spokane County, where students speak dozens of different languages.

Statewide, Spanish is spoken by 62 percent of ESL students. In some school districts such as Yakima, Pasco and Wenatchee, Spanish speakers account for more than 96 percent of the students considered to have limited English skills.

In Spokane County, school districts have roughly 100 Spanish- speaking students enrolled in ESL programs.

More than half of the students learning English in this area consider Russian their first or second language; the rest, however, communicate in 30 other languages, including Vietnamese and Arabic.

At CV, students in the English Language Development Program spend most of their school day in a regular classroom, but focus on reading and writing with an ESL teacher for about an hour a day.

At District 81, new students learning English also are brought into regular classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels, but those in high school spend at least one semester in the Newcomers’ Center at Havermale Alternative Center before going to a high school that provides ESL support.

Lessons in the center go beyond vocabulary and verb conjugations. Connie Henry, who has taught ESL to at least 300 students since the center opened six years ago, also teaches math, study skills and other subjects. Most of all, she makes sure students are prepared for life in an American high school.

Known as “Mom” to some of the ESL students, Henry makes sure these kids know how to get in line for food at the cafeteria, what to do when they feel sick and have to be absent, and other survival skills.

“We make it more comfortable for them,” said Henry, who brings interpreters to her classroom once a week. “After awhile, they learn the routine of American classrooms.”

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