Students Speaking English as a Second Language Rise

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COLUMBIA - Columbia Public Schools implemented a new cluster program this school year to better serve a group of more than 900 CPS students who speak English as a second language.

Twenty-two English Language Learners or ELL teachers serve a growing population of students representing 60 different languages daily. Teachers assist ELL students at eight elementary schools, three middle schools and all four high schools as part of a new initiative to better serve the growing amount of students who identify English as a second language.

About 100 CPS students are learning English for the first time with just more than 200 students on monitor status, but CPS staff members say the numbers are growing. In March of this year, 287 Spanish-speaking students enrolled in Columbia public schools, followed by 110 Arabic speakers and 104 Korean speakers, representing the three largest groups. According to a recent program evaluation, 554 ELL students were enrolled in CPS schools in 2005. Today, that number has increased by 68 percent to 936 as of March 2014.

In past years, ELL teachers traveled to various Columbia public schools to serve students in the English Language Learners program. This school year, ELL teachers were placed at designated schools or select cluster schools to better serve their students. The new system allows for more collaboration between the ELL teachers and classroom teachers.

Columbia Public Schools coordinator Shelly Fair said the cluster program allows ELL teachers to become immersed in the school culture. She also said as the number of ELL students enrolled in CPS increases, staff members must learn to optimize on the resources provided.

"It is a challenge because we have to find a way with the staff and resources that we have to offer the same services to all of those ELL students who are coming into our system," said Fair.

Fair said CPS encourages classroom teachers at cluster schools who are not ELL certified to adjust their approach of teaching course curriculum to better meet the needs of students who do not speak English as their native language.

Kasey Laughlin is one of two ELL teachers responsible for 97 English learners at Blue Ridge Elementary where 24 countries are represented. She said it is a challenge to help classroom teachers and other students understand how the beliefs and customs of some ELL students may affect their learning. She also acknowledged how her role as an ELL teacher creates a safe haven for students to learn at more moderate pace.

"They feel more comfortable and they feel safe and sometimes being in that smaller group will help them branch out and feel more confident and safe. Then they can take that back to their classroom," said Laughlin.

The government requires any school district receiving federal money to have an ELL program in place. If a student is identified as a potential English learner the school must test that student to provide the necessary resources to succeed academically.

When a new student enrolls in a Columbia public school and either identifies English as his or her second language or as a language that is not spoken at home that student is required to undergo ELL screening. When test results show students need ELL services and parents comply, students are then transferred to a cluster school and provided bus services.

Fair said she acknowledges how adjusting to a new school and academic system can be difficult for some families.

"It is a very scary thing to send your child to school, especially in a culture that is different then yours, language that is different than yours. That is a very frightening situation where they can feel vulnerable, so my goal is to make them feel as comfortable as possible," said Fair.

Aurelia Cortes moved her son to Derby Ridge Elementary School from Parkade Elementary School for the ELL cluster program. She said her son didn't want to relocate to Derby and was nervous about the transition but has seen an improvement in his grades.

"Well since he's been coming to school he's getting only checks and pluses. I was worried about him being out of the classroom for a certain time to be in this class and he would be failing not doing good in areas but he's doing good," said Cortes.

Cortes also said after doing research on the program, the ELL service offered to CPS students was the best fit for her son.

"I want him to keep succeeding at school and I think this will help. I read that some students who do not get this program can have problems later on in middle school or high school and I don't want this to happen to him," said Cortes.

CPS hires interpreters to close the language barrier gap between teachers and parents. Shelly Fair said as the cluster program continues to grow CPS would like to provide more resources to the cluster schools and professional development for classroom teachers as well.

Shelly Fair said she recognizes the challenges ELL students face when they come to Columbia but wants the ELL staff to stay proactive in its approach to teaching and helping the student they serve.

"I think that as far as the achievement gap with English learners, it's very real and it's very large and it's very true and they face twice as much as the student sitting next to them who is not an English learner because they are learning the content and the language at the same time. And most of them are doing it quite remarkably," said Fair.

Fair said the ELL program is seeking to set up a program that will allow volunteers to help engage with the large amount of students in need of ELL services next school year.