Thursday, August 14, 2003

Schools going extra mile for newcomers

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Andrew Nguyen, 6, works on his handwriting skills and phonics during ESL class at Fairfield Central Elementary School.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
This year, public school districts across the region will be paying more attention to students like Yislain Villalona.

By her own reckoning, 8-year-old Yislain speaks "perfect English and perfect Spanish.'' But at Central Elementary in Fairfield, she gets extra help with reading because her Peruvian family usually speaks Spanish at home.

Children like Yislain are key targets of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, which kicks into full gear this fall. The act, signed by President Bush in 2001, requires districts to work toward closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers, or face sanctions.

The act requires schools to track the annual test scores of all students, including youngsters with disabilities, economic disadvantages, limited English skills and membership in certain racial or ethnic groups.

Yislain fits two categories: She is Hispanic, and she gets instruction in English as a second language, known as ESL. If such children do not show "adequate yearly progress'' on test scores, their schools may be deemed as needing improvement, even if the majority of students do well.

If these schools receive federal Title I funds, they must give parents the option of transferring their children elsewhere.

In Kentucky and Ohio, the number of students classified as "limited English proficient," or LEP, is growing faster than general enrollment. In Ohio, for instance, there were 19,868 LEP students in 2002, a 78 percent increase over 10 years earlier. During the same period, overall school enrollment declined 10 percent in Ohio, to 1.8 million youngsters.

At the same time, Tristate schools are enrolling more Hispanic children as their immigrant parents move here for jobs. These youngsters may or may not have limited English skills.

As a result of these demographic changes and the new federal law, districts are starting to work harder to serve schoolchildren across ethnic and language divides.

Some schools are hiring more ESL teachers, who have specific training to help youngsters learn English quickly.

Others are doing more to communicate with non-English-speaking parents, whose involvement is seen as critical to their children's success. Hispanic parents, in particular, are more likely than others to speak little English if they have recently immigrated here for work that involves manual labor, district officials say.

Among recent developments in the region's school districts:

• Fairfield Schools created a position for an ESL teacher at the high school and liaison between ESL families and schools. The new employee, hired this summer, speaks Spanish and English.

• Lakota Schools hired two additional ESL teachers last year, bringing the total to four at the two elementary schools, Shawnee and Hopewell, that serve LEP children.

• Hamilton Schools hired a second, full-time ESL teacher this summer. Last year, it hired a bilingual aide to work with Spanish-speaking parents at Jefferson Elementary School. And for the last two years, weekly instruction in conversational Spanish has been offered to staff members at Jefferson and Garfield Junior High School.

• This summer, Cincinnati Public Schools hired a Spanish-speaking secretary, and a psychologist who speaks Spanish and Japanese for its new Second-Language Acquisition Department.

Reaching out to parents

For parents, Cincinnati Public now offers a booklet - translated into Spanish, Russian, Arabic and French - on how they can help their children get promoted to the next grade.

This summer, for the first time, CPS offered 36 hours of instruction in conversational Spanish to school employees. The 30 slots were filled in two days, says Carole Roberts, manager of the Second-Language Acquisition Department.

Roberts, a retired Cincinnati school principal, was lured back from Florida this year to help the district get into compliance with No Child Left Behind.

"I had to sit back and assess where we were,'' she says. "When I found out we weren't anywhere, I got busy.''

Besides having documents translated and hiring additional personnel, Roberts created a handbook for school administrators, explaining how they should welcome, assess and accommodate students who are limited English proficient.

In the past, such children were steered to the Academy of World Languages in Evanston or Withrow International High School in Hyde Park.

But that's not enough anymore, Roberts says. Under No Child Left Behind, all neighborhood schools must accommodate LEP students if their parents want them to attend, and those schools must provide translated materials for parents whenever necessary.

That's good news to Maria Ortiz, a Hispanic immigrant with four children in the Cincinnati system. Although the kids are fluent in English and not enrolled in ESL instruction, Ortiz speaks only Spanish. That means she has trouble communicating with her children's teachers when she attends open houses at Roberts Paideia Academy in Price Hill, she says.

Ortiz's children often translate for her, but she doesn't like always relying on them for information about their schoolwork.

"If there were someone who could interpret, it would be a lot easier," Ortiz says, in Spanish.

To accommodate parents like Ortiz, school administrators can contact Sister Margarita Brewer or Eneida Uehlin, two Spanish-speaking staff members in the Second-Language Acquisition Department, Roberts says. (Telephone: 513-363-0211.)

Last year, for the first time, all CPS schools designated a staff person to serve as their ESL coordinator. This school year, Roberts says, CPS will offer training to help regular classroom teachers work better with LEP students.

Among the approaches:

• Give such youngsters more time to answer questions.

• Don't assume students can read and write in English just because they speak it fluently.

At Central Elementary in Fairfield last year, 9-year-old Carolina Martinez was pulled out of her regular classes occasionally for extra tutoring.

Carolina, whose family is from Mexico, speaks English but there are some words she doesn't understand. The extra help is good, she says.

"In the normal class, there was only one teacher, and a lot of kids, so she couldn't pay attention to you because she needed to pay attention to other kids,'' Carolina says, in English. "In the special (ESL) class, there were two teachers and six kids.''


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