English language learning for students in the Hamilton School District can be described in one word — eager.
The term doesn’t just apply to the students who arrive at the school from an array of different cultures to learn English, but also to the staff, which can’t wait to show the children how to succeed academically, as well as, outside of the classroom.
For students learning English as a new language, the experience can be unnerving. The degree of difficulty students face the minute they walk into the classroom with mandatory testing, in some cases, just weeks after arriving in the United States, is daunting.
Corbin Moore is the English Language Learner (ELL) or English as a Second Language (ESL) Coordinator for the Hamilton School District. The program currently serves over 600 English Language Learners representing more than 15 languages and was started in 1995. He sees the program as more than just a one-size-fits-all education.
“The types and frequency of services are provided to students based on a student’s language level, literacy needs, and teacher recommendations. Services include direct pull-out service, sheltered content classes, classroom support, and progress monitoring,” Moore said. “Secondary ESL students may participate in a leveled class intended to increase English proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students receive ESL instruction in addition to, not in place of, the core Language Arts instruction.”
The program is staffed with 16 teachers, four language support personnel, one district translator and Moore’s position. Riverview Elementary has the highest population of ESL students in the district with 238.
More than 95 percent of ELL students in the district speak Spanish, while some of the other unique languages include: Hindu, Punjabi, Tagalog and Lakota. The range covered has some very interesting twists.
“We have French speaking students from Africa, and 10 of our students speak Pohnpeian,” Moore noted. “It’s a Micronesian language spoken by 29,000 people out of 7 billion in the world, and we have 10 of them right here in the Hamilton schools.”
Riverview is an ELL gem
The school is well equipped to handle any ESL need, and it starts right when you walk in the front office door and encounter Patty Olson at the front desk. Olson is a one-woman meet-and-greet committee for Spanish speaking students and parents at the school.
“I know all of the kids and who their parents are,” she said, while correcting a colleague on the name of a student whose mother was waiting to pick-up. “I keep track of them and what’s going on.”
And what’s going on upstairs in the classrooms, is some solid English immersion education.
“What is the sound the ‘P’ makes?’” quizzes kindergarten teacher Tamera Slaven, as her class hangs on every syllable she speaks. Slaven came to the Hamilton schools from Texas and had experience as an ESL teacher. She asked and received her own kindergarten class at Riverview, and it’s been more of a family affair than a job.
“I’ve worked with all of the kids’ brothers and sisters and know their families,” she said. “I have been to many of their family’s weddings, birthdays and of course their quinceañeras.”
Slaven’s face lights up when she talks about the quinceañera. “It’s a very important part of Hispanic or Mexican culture. It’s like their sweet 16 party.”
Slaven points out that the prejudice directed towards ELL learners is unfounded. Terms like lazy, or disruptive are unfounded.
“They value their teacher and their education — some of the students even ask me for extra homework each week,” Slaven said. “We are always in constant contact with their parents and if any students have behavioral problems, then the parents are supportive in correcting that.”
Challenges to the program
Trying to get every ELL/ESL student up to speed on their ABCs sounds noble, but in reality the learning gaps between each student and the fact that many families are transient in the district and the area makes it hard to score high on mandatory tests. Trying to communicate with students’ parents who may not speak or write English can derail progress too.
Straight off the district report card, Moore delivers the news that a “D” was earned by Hamilton when it comes to measurable rates set by the state of Ohio for reading, math and graduation for ELL/ESL students. Normally, that might earn an alert or warning, but taken in context, it’s par for the course.
“We have a good number of students with interruptions in their formal education (SIFE), Moore said. “Bridging cultural and language differences in the classroom and between school and home are challenges. Also, managing translation services for state assessments and communication with parents…it is tough with a transient population.”
Angela Holland, teaches ESL to third and fourth graders at Riverview, she also understands that the battle to educate ELL students is an uphill one.
“They have a dual challenge. They have to meet not only Common Core standards, but also English language proficiency standards as well,” she explained. “They are doubly challenged to meet those very high expectations.”
Holland adds that research data reveals that it takes time to learn a new language and testing doesn’t necessarily reveal the total academic picture.
“Research by language experts tells us that it can take 3 to 5 years to learn what is called BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills),” she said. “This is basic language used everyday at a personal level. It can take 7 to 9 years to attain CALP, the academic language needed to perform at grade level. It’s a challenge our ELLs face every school year and we’re working together to help them prepare for college and career.”
Maureen Murray-Schultz, also teaches at Riverview, she’s been with the district for nine years. After leading students through a word pronunciation drill, she talked about why success can be a label attached to the district’s program when it comes to meeting challenges.
“The ESL population in the district has grown and Corbin and district officials have done a wonderful job in realizing that and putting resources into the program and making sure we have the tools to meet the kids’ needs,” she said. “For instance, when we started in this building five years ago, there were only two of us for nearly 250 students. Since then, we have hired three more people so we can meet the students’ needs.”
Sharon Montano teaches at Riverview. Understanding different cultures and making academics a melting pot experience creates eager learners in her classroom.
“There is a culturation that goes on, especially with the older students,” Montano said, as two of her students completed an assignments finding locations all over the world on a map. “They have stuff going on in their lives. It’s important to keep them interested in learning and bringing the world to them.”
With any ESL or ELL program, developing partnerships is a key resource in helping keep things afloat. There may be no better resource in education than teachers and that is why Moore has reached out to a local university in an attempt to create a pipeline of intellectual capital for Hamilton schools.
“The Miami University Teachers Education Department, has been a great resource for us - we get several student-teachers from the university,” Moore noted. “Miami University encourages students to get certified teaching ELL.”
One of the biggest tools in the district’s ELL toolbox might be its connection with a company called Global 2 Local Translation Services. When a student and his or her family arrives at Hamilton, the school can get a translator or interpreter on the phone in less than 30 seconds.
“Corbin and the Hamilton school are excellent to work with,” said Grace Bosworth, who manages the day-to-day operations of the company.”WE specialize in education in work with schools all over Ohio. If Hamilton needs they call a special phone line and the dispatcher will tell us what type of language they need a translator or interpreter for, even the rarest language, and we will respond usually within 20 seconds.”
Bosworth said many cities, even the most rural areas, are now realizing how important it is to have a well developed ELL/ESL program.
“In 2014, Cincinnati schools spent $14 million to revamp and retrain teachers in its ESL program,” she said. “Many people don’t realize that Title 6 (federal law) required equal access to any institution that gets federal funding to anybody who doesn’t speak English and that is usually schools, medical facilities or courts and government agencies.”
Future for ESL/ELL
Financially, the program is on solid footing in Hamilton. Treasurer Robert Hancock said the costs to run the program annually are in the neighborhood of $1.1 million with a chunk of that being supported by federal Title III money and state funding.
For Moore, he sees the future forecast as hopeful for the group of eager learners, teachers and staff that make up the melting pot of Hamilton schools’ ELL/ESL program.
“The ESL population continues to grow, and we are looking forward to find new and better ways to help our students graduate and reach their full potential,” Moore said.