Bridging classroom language barriers
by Deborah Harris
Reading was always the most difficult subject for Aracely Perez.
Because her parents are from Mexico, it was difficult to stay motivated, let alone achieve literacy. Her mother tried to make sure her kids kept up in school, but her mother’s own fifth grade education made that difficult.
“At home, when my parents are not home — because they are working to bring food and everything — it was just hard, because there was no one nagging us to do our homework,” Perez said.
“No one telling us, ‘You have to do this.’ Even when they told us how important it was, they weren’t there.”
Perez, now a nursing student at Central Carolina Community College, was lucky.
She had an older sister she could learn English from. Now, her younger sister and brother are in even better positions — while their mother works, Perez takes them to tutoring at El Centro Hispano, a community organization in Carrboro and Durham serving the Hispanic and Latino populations.
Like neighboring counties in North Carolina, Orange County has a booming Hispanic population, which is making its presence felt in the school districts. Hispanics comprised nearly 11 percent of Orange County Schools’ student enrollment in the 2008-09 school year.
This year, Hispanic student enrollment is 17 percent.
Hispanics face a similar achievement gap as other minority groups, but for Limited English Proficiency students — mostly Spanish speakers — achieving proficiency on standardized tests is difficult. Last school year, about 30 percent of third-grade Limited English Proficiency students reached grade level proficiency on overall End-Of-Grade assessments. Scores plummeted to 7 percent in sixth grade and 8 percent in eighth grade.
“Our data shows us that our (Limited English Proficiency) students are growing, they are making improvements and growing really well — but they are not necessarily meeting that proficiency on our EOG, EOC standards,” said Dawn Bagwell, ESL differentiation coach.
However, Bagwell said Orange County schools are working extremely hard to help these students catch up. Over the last few years, the district expanded its family outreach programs to work with students and parents both inside and outside of the classroom.
Inside the classroom
Perez said she performed well in math, but ESL teacher Sarah Lewis said math and science are the most challenging courses for her high school ESL students.
Lewis begins her day at Pathways Elementary School and switches midday to Orange High School. But the two groups of students face very different challenges.
The 15 Limited English Proficiency elementary school students get to stay in the same classroom throughout the day, but these kids struggle with the rigorous standardized assessments — even when they have a high level of English fluency. On the other hand, the 10 to 12 high school students Lewis works with the most tend to struggle with advanced topics and specialized vocabulary in math and science.
Lewis encourages her students to use every resource, such as in-school tutoring or each other. Though not all ESL teachers can speak Spanish, Lewis can speak Spanish, so she can translate for her students if necessary.
“I have a student who is very bright, and her language level is pretty low, so when I am with her in science class, I translate what is happening, and she understands everything about the subject,” she said. “It’s just the English.”
For Lewis, 90 percent of her job is instruction — the other 10 percent is attending to the students. In the elementary schools, this is relatively easy because she can spot children and parents in the hallway. In high school, she sometimes seeks out her students during planning periods.
“If I know something is going on, if I know a grade is too low, I go find them, and I say, ‘Hey, I care about you, I don’t want you to fail — what’s going on,’” Lewis said. “A lot of it is simply just taking time out of what you might want to do and going and saying, ‘Hey, I care about you.’”
However, Lewis said both elementary and high school ESL students share a common challenge.
“Time. We have a limited amount of time we can study with these students,” Lewis said. “It would be nice if I could be with them the whole time.”
Outside the classroom
At a recent meeting for Club de Padres, a support program for families with ESL students, a parent described the stench of bad pipes and the crowding of prostitutes and drug dealers outside of her home during a Spanish presentation about housing discrimination from the Orange County Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Department. The sheriff’s department and landlord already knew about the problem, but nothing was done, and she was scared to let her kids play outside.
Sandra Blefko, ESL and Family Outreach specialist, said home factors influence how students do in school. Like Perez, ESL students’ parents might not have much education or English language fluency, and they may come from a low-income home.
Schools in Orange County have created family outreach programs like Club de Padres and partnered with community organizations like El Futuro since 2005 to support the increasing amount of ESL families because they know education goes beyond the classroom.
“When parents come to us and express a need, we can’t be the end-all-be-all and have the solution to every problem, but we do have community partners that we can send them to,” Bagwell said.
El Centro Hispano is a community partner with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Durham Public Schools. It is the only Latino organization in the area and established a tutoring program five years ago, Community Specialist Linda Esquivel said.
“This community is vulnerable to many circumstances that don’t permit to them to focus in the children’s education,” Esquivel said in an email. “We hope that our tutoring program will be helpful to the parents, and the kids can increase their level education and integrate in the community.”
Sitting outside on El Centro Hispano’s porch doing her own homework, Perez said the tutoring her brother receives inside is helping him do better in school.
Perez said she pushes her siblings to keep at their homework, even if it takes a long time, and even when they say they are finished and they aren’t.
“Uh-uh,” she said, shaking her head. “I know when they are lying.”
“That’s when I want to push it to them and be like, ‘No, you need this in the future. You can’t let it go'”