Where Learning Begins Facing Challenge of Pupils Who Speak Little English

At McCluer High School, the classroom for teaching students whose first language isn’t English has no walls. Field trips to the zoo, museums, historic sites and even a walking tour of downtown enrich the curriculum for the 13 students from around the world taking English as a second language, or ESL. ”What happens is that there is much more of an exchange of language and culture,” said Susan Hanan, the ESL teacher, who was awarded a state grant to pay for the field trips. ”But more importantly it is that they ask questions or say what they have, or don’t have, that is like that in their country.” Hanan said that even months later students draw on the field-trip experiences. ”The language becomes richer,” she said. ”They remember a name and a place. ” The effort to educate students with limited or no English is being repeated in classrooms throughout the St. Louis area in record-breaking numbers. This year, at seven bilingual education centers, St. Louis Public Schools will teach about 650 students who speak 37 other languages. That is about 10 times as many as when the program began in 1980 serving mainly Vietnamese. ”We are really crowded, and it’s getting more and more everyday,” said Nabila Salib, director of the district’s bilingual education. Only three years ago, just one ESL student attended McCluer High School. And in Pattonville Schools, ESL enrollment this year tripled to 35.

In the Parkway schools, demand has temporarily outstripped the supply of classroom space and staff. At the district’s center for elementary pupils in the Bellerive School in Creve Coeur, enrollment has hit 28. ”And that’s too many kids,” said Dorothea Bruschke, program coordinator.”We shouldn’t have more than 20. We thought it would stop. But it didn’t.” Another 14 pupils wait at neighborhood elementary schools for space at Bellerive or until another ESL center opens. Meanwhile, they get instruction from teacher aides. So far this school year, Parkway has 102 ESL students in kindergarten through 12th grade. That is a 56 percent increase from last year. ‘ ‘And we expect to continue to see more increases,” said James Sandfort, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. In a report made public last month, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Literacy estimates that Missouri has at least 3,000 schoolchildren with limited proficiency in English who perform below their peers. They are found in one out of five Missouri school districts and represent 60 languages. Their families came to the United States as immigrants or refugees to start new lives. Others come on a temporary basis for parents to take advantage of educational or employment opportunities with area hospitals, universities, businesses and corporations.

A handful are exchange students. When it comes to ESL students, educators struggle with more than numbers. Teaching English to speakers of other languages, some illiterate in their first language, is an educational responsibility that creates challenge, frustration and excessive demands.

Public schools have no choice. Federal courts have protected the civil rights of these students by instructing local districts to find ways to give them an appropriate education, regardless of their national origin. And to avoid the threat of discrimination based on segregation, students who speak other languages must be mainstreamed without delay into regular classrooms from separate classrooms or centers. Some area school districts serve students speaking other languages within the regular classroom or by pulling them out on a tutorial basis. Others provide language centers or special classrooms for part of the day and mainstream the students for non-academic courses such as music, gym and art. The goal is to get these students proficient enough in English to attend regular classes full time. That can take several years because students learn English at different rates, with younger children catching on quickest. ”The hardest thing is the difference in levels of English acquisition,” said Elisabetta Troia, an ESL teacher at John Roe Elementary School in south St. Louis. Most ESL programs start by teaching students enough English to communicate with peers and teachers. ”It’s language acquisition, not language learning,” said Bruschke. ”It’s always usage we emphasize.” Bruschke said that means ESL students learn that when someone says ”How’s it going?” they really don’t want an answer. Rather, it’s just another way to say ”Hi.” At Bernard Elementary School in Mehlville, pupils who don’t speak English start by learning ”bathroom” and ”water” so they can survive the school day. But ESL is more than getting students proficient in English. ”It’s a language and cultural problem,” said Adelaide Heyde Parsons, associate professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau. ”My philosophy is all cultures are equally good,” said Parsons. ”What I am trying to say to these people is that you have to be able to walk in both cultures if you live here. I try to make them feel it’s OK to be different.” She said, for example, that while American educators value students asking questions, Oriental educators consider it an insult to raise your hand in class. Hanan learned cultural differences when she sent a letter home written in Vietnamese and still got no response. ”Unless the teacher has a problem, the parents don’t expect to be informed or have the teacher bother them,” said Hanan. ”They entrust the kid to that teacher and the state to monitor that teacher.” In Mehlville Schools, Moslem parents pulled children from Halloween celebrations. Because of dietary restrictions prohibiting them from eating pork, the Moslems also asked teachers not to show their children pictures of pigs or even let them hear that word. Some educators favor teaching academics in both English and the student’s native tongue. But in this area the emphasis appears to be on English only. ”That’s the only common language they have, and they learn it much faster,” said Bruschke. ”The other language would be a crutch.” However, some educators find they must speak other languages. ”I really think the most important thing is to communicate and do whatever we can to make the child and parents comfortable,” said Troia, of John Roe Elementary, who has used Italian to communicate with Polish students who spent a year in Italy on their way to the United States. ”The name of the game is to communicate.” Necessity has forced ESL teachers to become creative, resourceful and tenacious, using a variety of media to get the message across. Among them: poetry, drawings, body language, computers and field trips. In the Mehlville District, second-grade teacher Helen Allen uses a computer to translate Arabic to English.

When words fail, Allen relies on music, a smile, a handshake or a pat on the back to communicate. ”And a picture is worth a thousand words,” she said. In Parkway, ESL teachers focus on creating an experience that will help students learn. ”Kids remember what they do, not what they hear,” she said. Many districts count on English-speaking peers to pair up with ESL students. In Union, where 31 Romanian students enrolled over two years, everyone helps each other when it comes to learning English. ”It seems to work well,” said Sheila Phillips, teacher of English to speakers of other languages in Union. The Romanian families settled in Union as part of a Christian evangelical church. Educators say teaching English to speakers of other languages has its rewards and benefits. ”If we can look at these children as a resource, it’s wonderful,” said Judith W. Grimes, a supervisor with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Irene M. Goldman, an educational consultant with area schools, including Pattonville, said the biggest benefit is the cultural exchange. ”The classes fortunate enough to have an international student learn much from that child,” Goldman said. ”These students enrich our schools.” ESL See ESL, Page 2 I t’s language acquisition, not language learning. It’s always usage we emphasize. DOROTHEA BRUSCHKE, ESL program coordinator in the Parkway schools W hat happens is there is much more of an exchange of language and culture. . . . The language becomes richer. SUSAN HANAN, ESL teacher at McCluer High School W hat I am trying to say to these people is that you have to be able to walk in both cultures if you live here. . . . it’s OK to be different. ADELAIDE HEYDE PARSONS of Southeast Missouri State U. I really think the most important thing is to communicate and do whatever we can to make the child and parents comfortable. The name of the game is to communicate. ELISABETTA TROIA of John Roe Elementary School

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