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News: Educando a Nuestros Niños

Learning with a language barrier

By Heather Siladi · February 15th, 2006 · News
  Sonia Sanchez and Sherwin Ealy work with students learning to speak English.
Graham Lienhart

Sonia Sanchez and Sherwin Ealy work with students learning to speak English.

The number of students in the Cincinnati Public Schools who primarily speak languages other than English has grown by more than 500 percent in the past five years.

While most of the students for whom English is a second language (ESL) are Spanish speakers, more than 60 other languages are represented in the school district's enrollment. Yet while the demand for services was showing huge increases, the district eliminated the position of director of the ESL program in a budget-cutting move.

Making the issue even more pressing is the specter of potential losses in federal funding triggered by the No Child Left Behind Act, which ties school funding to standardized test results. ESL students tend to score lower on standardized tests, which are administered in English.

Ending isolation
The recent influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants to Greater Cincinnati raises both familiar and unfamiliar social issues. The Latino population is not only a growing minority group, but a group that often speaks little or no English.

Imagine trying to rent an apartment, get a job or open a bank account without being able to read, write or even speak to the people around you. Everyday tasks become difficult ordeals for people who speak English as a second language, and getting immigrant children into school can be one of the most difficult steps.

A language barrier puts students at an immediate disadvantage. Learning basic skills and demonstrating knowledge is problematic, particularly with the emphasis on standardized testing. In the past, many ESL children were simply labeled "slow learners" and placed in special-education classes.

Programming for ESL students has improved over the years.

The options for ESL students in Cincinnati Public Schools include two magnet elementary schools, the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies in Bond Hill and the Academy of World Languages in Evanston, and an ESL program at Withrow International High School.

In the past five years, the number of ESL children in Cincinnati Public Schools has risen from 150 to 930. The Spanish-speaking population has seen the most growth in Cincinnati, and Spanish-speaking children make up about 35 percent of the district's ESL students. The next highest group is students who speak Arabic, 6 percent; Wolof, a West African language, 6 percent; and French, 5 percent.

The Academy of World Languages, which exclusively focuses on getting children proficient in English, has children from 66 foreign language backgrounds. Is the rapid increase in ESL students more than Cincinnati Public Schools can handle? The answer is no, according to Sherwin Ealy, principal of the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies (AMIS).

"It has to be to a point that it's debilitating, and I don't think we're there yet," he says. "But it is about helping these kids. We have a lot of bright children here, and I just want to see them succeed."

That can be a complex assignment.

"Many of these kids are very isolated and may not have a lot of contact with the English language outside of school," says Mary Jo Montenegro, a school social worker.

One alternative to isolating ESL children is a "dual immersion" curriculum, such as the one offered at AMIS, which teaches English, Spanish and French. At AMIS, the Spanish-speaking kids are learning English while the English-speaking kids are learning Spanish. The goal is for all of the students to become fluent in two languages, rather than teach a new language at the expense of the other.

"There is a lot of research that shows that, when you have a child learn English at the expense of their native tongue, before they master their first language, what actually happens is that they never master either language," says Maria Lang, the program facilitator at AMIS.

New to school
Another obstacle ESL children face is being labeled slow learners.

"Many children are afraid to speak up in class, not because they are not bright kids but because it's hard when you're still learning the language," says Sonia Sanchez, who has been teaching at AMIS for 20 years.

When she first came to the United States, Sanchez's 15-year-old daughter, who had always been an honor student, was treated like a problem student in the Norwood School District. But understanding has improved, Sanchez says.

"That has changed a lot," she says, "Cincinnati is much less conservative and more open than it used to be."

Still, many ESL children struggle in school, and there are often complications that go beyond a language barrier.

"We may get a child who by his age should be in the fourth grade, but he's never been to school," Ealy says. "First, they will work with an ESL teacher, and then we can do cognitive testing once they've learned English. Special ed is a last refuge. We try to find a happy medium between promoting them because of their age and putting them into a class with much younger children, which can be discouraging."

Ohio is a comparatively progressive state for ESL students. In standardized testing, the state offers assistance to students with limited English proficiency, such as interpreters and CD-ROM testing in Spanish.

"We are very lucky, because Ohio is one of the few states to offer such assistance," Lang says.

Some ESL students must deal with factors outside the classroom.

"Many of our parents here are illiterate," says Lang, who started a five-week series of Saturday workshops at AMIS to help parents help their kids in school. The workshops, coordinated with Santa Maria Community Center, educate parents about literacy as well as health issues.

But for many families, the first obstacle is simply getting their children into school.

"The system can be intimidating and is not very welcoming and understanding to get into," Montenegro says.

Then there is the fact that school isn't the reason some children immigrate.

"Many of these school-aged children come to this country to work, not to go to school," says Dan La Botz, a professor of Latin American Studies at Miami University.

Xiomara Faulkner, a representative for Santa Maria, has helped register many Hispanic children for school and Head Start. She says the majority of families who lay down roots in the community will end up getting referred to someone who can help them get their kids in school.

"Sometimes there are other issues, like housing, but most kids will eventually get enrolled," Faulkner says. ©



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