Springfield schools face influx of non-English speaking students

Here’s how the district is working with Haitian children and others, handling the barriers related to language.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The number of non-English speaking students in Springfield City Schools has more than quadrupled — up 350 percent in four years — including hundreds of Haitian immigrants, prompting the district to add more multilingual resources and curriculum.

Languages spoken by students in Springfield schools include Haitian Creole, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese.

Pam Shay, director of federal programs who oversees multicultural outreach services, said the district has seen “exponential growth” with non-English speaking students, called English Language Learners or ELL. She said the district had about 200 ELL students roughly four years ago and now is up to about 900.

“This year you can see that exponential growth that we’ve more than doubled and tripled in size, so with that we have more ELL in the classroom and the students coming to us with all different language levels,” she said.

Shay said the district works to address the languages and barriers that come with that in many ways, including basic and general communication in multiple languages, English for Speakers of Other Languages teachers, specialized textbooks and materials, bilingual assistants and professional development.

“One of the big things that we have to always try to remember is that the best way to learn a language is to be fully immersed in it,” she said, meaning those students should not be isolated. “You want them to be engaged with other students, friends, teachers, school administrators and interacting with them on a regular basis so that they can learn words, learn the sentence structure and to be able to talk and have communication.”

Although Springfield schools devote quite a bit of resources and efforts to help ELL students, Shay said it doesn’t take away from the English language students.

“You would think that, but fortunately with various grants and funding sources that are geared towards these populations, it’s not taking away from funding that’s used for the English-speaking population,” she said.

The district receives funds from the state of Ohio, plus Title III grants and funds that are specifically supportive of ELL. Other funds come through state grants used to support the district’s needs.

Addressing languages, barriers

The district’s website can now be viewed in multiple languages, communications that are sent out can be translated and teachers in the district also send email messages to families that can be translated. Even billboard campaigns are in multiple languages.

“We’re communicating with families in their native language or their preferred language so that they know what’s going on in the school district,” Shay said.

Many of the textbooks and materials are translated, programs are installed on student iPads that help translate, and some tools have been incorporated into the curriculum.

“We researched and identified many tools that are available for our classroom teachers and our students to use,” Shay said.

One of the programs is called “Snap and Read.” Students can take a picture of a document, upload it and the app will translate it and compare it to the English language.

“It’s easier for you to learn what the English translation is by comparing it with your native language, so they can look at those side by side (and) it helps the student learn English more easily,” Shay said.

Conversation first

The first thing staff focuses on is getting students to speak and listen to English, then they get into the writing structure and reading element.

“We try real hard to get them in conversational English first, then they communicate a lot better in the classroom and understand basic instructions and items like that,” Shay said.

The district created “language cheat sheets” that include common words or phrases staff use on a daily basis and translated them into other languages; some even include pictures. So, for example Shay said, if a student goes into the nurse’s office with a sore elbow, they can point to the picture until they learn the word.

They also created about 100 flashcards of key terms in a classroom for each school building and put them up so students can see what the words are for, such as door, pencil, pencil sharpener, window, chair, table, etc., “so that (students) can get to know the vocabulary and what it looks like and then what it sounds like.”

“The Multicultural Outreach Services Department has made a great effort to make sure the entire district is aware of our growing population and how we all can be more inclusive — even if that means by picking up small phrases like, ‘How are you?’” said communications specialist Jenna Leinasars.

There is even audio of common phrases so people can hear the language and learn it. Those in the district can make a call to a vendor and tell them they need translation: push a number key for whatever the language is, and get a live person on the phone. Shay said this is helpful when there is an emergency that comes up and one of the other language experts in the district isn’t available.

More staff fluent in languages

The school has grown not only by students who are non-English speaking, but also by staff in the department who are fluent in other languages to help those children in the classroom. They are English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, teachers.

“The district has a growing number of staff in the department who are fluent in Haitian Creole, and other languages, who serve as translators and even ESOL teachers to assist our Haitian students who do not speak English,” Leinasars said. “However, many of our Haitian students are actually bilingual and may be the only English speaker in their family.”

ESOL teachers have “greatly grown” in the district, increasing to 13 full-time teachers who cover the 15 schools. Every building has an ESOL teacher.

All ELL students in elementary schools are assigned an ESOL teacher. The teacher will touch base with the student, keep in contact with their other teachers, see where that student is struggling and then have intervention times for one-on-one or small group assistance,

At the middle and high school, there are standalone beginner, intermediate and advanced ESOL classes that are taught by a teacher.

“An ESOL teacher is just like a regular classroom teacher, but he or she focuses on developing their English skills, and we have textbooks and a curriculum and computer programs, and all of that works together to teach them the language,” Shay said. “Once they get to a certain level of mastering the English language, then they are put into a regular language arts class or English class at the appropriate grade level, and then they just learn with everyone else.”

When non-English speaking students start at Springfield, regardless of the grade, they have an evaluation test called the Ohio English Language Proficiency Assessment (OELPA) they have to take. It rates them on how well they do key aspects of the language. Based on how they score, that determines where the student is placed and the level of support they receive.

Each year, all non-English speaking students also take a state test to assess their language, one Shay called a “checkpoint” to see how well they are doing. The tests measure the students and helps the school see where they need to make adjustments, or if they score a certain level, they are no longer classified as an ELL and need to be moved on.

Professional development

The school has professional development for English speaking teachers as well, including the elementary level.

“Kids are learning their alphabet and numbers, but really the English language at its most basic level ... Those early elementary teachers (are) who have been trained on how to teach the English language to anybody and everybody,” Shay said.

Although ESOL teachers don’t teaching classes for the elementary level, those teachers are still available to serve as a consultant and support for those classroom teachers at younger grades.

The district has also offered opportunities for teachers through workshops where people talk about what it’s like for students of different languages in the classroom, how to use common skills the teachers already have, and how it works for the non-English speakers.

The workshops not only teach how to better communicate with ELL, but also with English language students.

“So many teachers that have gone through this training have said even if (they) don’t have an ELL in (their) classroom, (they’re) learning from these extra skills because it better serves all of students,” Shay said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Bilingual assistants

There are eight bilingual assistants who are employed through the district. Some speak several languages, such as Haitian Creole, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Their role is to help minimize the language barrier between students, teachers and parents.

“They do a lot of translation services. They will talk to and be that third party that communicates between the two people speaking the different languages,” Shay said.

The assistants help in the classroom, during parent-teacher conferences or in Individualized Education Plan meetings. If more help is needed, Shay said they also partner with other vendors/local businesses that provide translation services and send in translators in the designated language during those busy times.

Lydia Martinez-Silva, multicultural outreach specialist and lead interpreter, said she and those in the department translate for students, teachers, staff and parents in a variety of ways.

“For example, my department helps in classrooms to bridge the language barrier between students and teachers. We translate for parents during registration, parent-teacher conferences, IEP meetings, discipline meetings, open houses, assessments, testing, etc.,” she said.

Martinez-Silva has been with the district for 3.5 years, but she has worked as an interpreter for more than 16 years. She schedules interpreters throughout the district to provide language support for all non-English speaking families for any and all events sponsored by the district.

“I will do a lot of initial assessments of student language skills at the beginning of school to help place them in the appropriate classes and support levels. Then, I may be assigned to a classroom on a regular basis or work in The Dome to communicate with parents and staff with registration or other needs,” she said.

When it comes to how many students Martinez-Silva translates for, she said it can vary from two to three a day to more than 50 a day, depending on the type of activities. However, she works with more than 500 students in a week during state testing times.

As for other staff and teachers, some have started picking up some basics of other languages and even greet students in their own language.

Challenges remain

One of the biggest challenges is cultural, Shay said.

“If you’re not used to dealing with a lot of non-English speaking students, it kind of takes you a little while to figure out,” she said.

There’s not only a cultural challenge on staff and teachers, but also on the ELL students and families because the school systems may be different in other countries. This can include changing classes when the bell rings, which some kids may not understand.

“It’s just getting used to those nuances of education, but once they’ve been here a little bit, they fit right in,” Shay said.

Other challenges that arise include terminology and making sure the examples used in class are understandable to all. For example, Shay said we refer to a cold or the sniffles, whereas someone in another language may call it something else.

Another challenge: adapting to the volume of ELL students who have come into the school district over the last few years. Before teachers may have had one or two ELL students but now have up to 12.

As a translator, Martinez-Silva said she has to find a balance between speaking in the native language and English.

“Everyone is at a different language level, so you must develop a relationship with the student to be able to best help them succeed,” she said.

“Additionally ... The pace of growth is sometimes challenging, but Springfield has added a lot of resources to assist staff and students to develop multilingual skills and a comfort level with the growing diversity of our students,” Martinez-Silva added.

Shay said students teach each other different things, including languages that many English speaking students want to learn from ELL students.

“The bottom line and what it boils down to is these kids love to learn. They are at an advantage because they’re learning multiple languages that just makes for such a richer education experience,” Shay said. “But then they’re kids, they want to have fun and they want to be loved, and all of our teachers can deal with that.”

The future

Shay said they always are looking for ways to improve, such as developing cultural opportunities, reviewing curriculum to make sure its multilingual and ensuring resources are available.

Leinasars said she has heard building principals who are embracing students “with open arms” and making building-wide plans to celebrate the diversities of all students.

Shay said they want to get ELL families more engaged with activities, including special events, and for ELL students to get more engaged in music, theater, clubs, sports and others outside of school.

“Developing the cultural aspects so that we are more open and inviting to everyone that walks through our doors regardless of their abilities and skill sets and language and everything else,” Shay said. “It’s just like with anything in school, there’s ways that we can improve how can we better be with the families.”

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