¿Se habla Ingles?

English-language learners present


"Speak English, please," is a phrase Kalyn Rogers doesn't think she'll ever say often enough.

The coordinator for the Moffat County School District's English Language Learners (ELL) program pitches the same line over and over to her students, much like a tape recorder stuck on play.

But Roger's persistence and the efforts of the school district's nine other ELL aides may be exactly what the school district needs to effectively immerse a growing number of students in English as it heads toward the future.

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau more than 200,000 Hispanic residents reside in Colorado than were reported two years ago.

While the majority of the county school district's 151 ELL students speak Spanish, others claim Navaho, Chinese and Chamorro as their native tongue.

But the increases in the Hispanic population are spread wide across the school district. The number of ELL students have more than tripled since Moffat County schools started the program in 2001.

Catching Up

After only two weeks of school, Rogers has seen the tears.

"I've already had students who want to drop out," she said of high school ELL students who rotate through her classroom. "They are emotional wrecks. They have very heavy course loads."

Frustration runs high as ELL students try to keep up in classes such as history, literature and biology using books that aren't written in a language most fully understand, she said.

But the goal of the district's ELL program isn't primarily to get all ELL students to the head of their class. It's to first help them survive the English learning experience and later to graduate.

"The goal here isn't to get an 'A' in history, it's to learn English first," Rogers said.

After three years of hard work, speaking English comes a bit more naturally for ninth grader Erika Hernandez.

"At first I understand English, then I read it, then I speak it," she said in an ELL class Tuesday. When difficult questions are posed to her classmates Hernandez quickly translates them into Spanish. At home, the student often does the same for her father, translating English back into Spanish. As Hernandez becomes bi-lingual, she admits learning the new language hasn't been easy.

"The grammar is hard," she said.

For many Hispanic students, complete immersion in English is difficult especially as ELL period rolls around. ELL students have been listening all day to words spoken in English, and if it's not understood, "it gets boring," Rogers said.

ELL students are often chastised in the high school environment when they do attempt to speak English in other classes, she said, which often makes it hard to try out the language on students who only speak English.

"When they get in here they tend to use the (Spanish) language as a crutch," Rogers said of Hispanic students rotating through her ELL classes. It's one reason the teacher has to remind students to speak in English when ELL class is in session.

But learning English is a different and possibly more difficult experience at first for those students who first speak languages other than Spanish.

"I can speak Spanish (with the Hispanic students) but the other students know I can't speak their language," she said.

Funding the future

According to Archie Neil, the district tries hard to keep up with the needs of ELL students.

It's his job, as the Director of Student Services for Moffat County schools, to push for more help for students. But ultimately the decision of how many ELL aides the district can support is a school board decision.

"At this point we're OK," Neil said. "We feel prepared to handle the situation at this time."

The district sports 10 ELL aides with at least one stationed at each school. That number is up from three aides, who started with the program's inception two years ago.

But the Moffat County School District earns only a negligible amount from the state for ELL students. This year the district-wide program qualified for $5,700. Currently, Title 3 funds are tied up, which may have earned the district $10,000 more.

And the Moffat County School district relies on one of the lowest state mandated per pupil fund to operate. The district is reimbursed $5,511 each for its roughly 2,500 students.

District officials are looking into studying the student body fluctuations that could increase enrollment numbers mid-year. Some families move into the Craig area each year as parents commute to Steamboat Springs to take up winter seasonal work.

Students who enter the school system after Oct. 1 can't be claimed for state funding by the Moffat County School District.

According to the district's findings, it may change how the schools plan activities, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said.

"If that's the case, then we'll have to change the way we do business," he said. "We may have to start holding parent/teacher conferences and the hours of our activities to make it more convenient."

Learning Curve

As the ELL program gains district-wide momentum, students with the most English exposure catch on the fastest, said Rogers.

After one year with the district's ELL program sophomore Mayela Balbuena said she's progressing.

"I think I am learning, I hope so," she said. "Last year I speak only Spanish. (Now) common words are easier."

Balbuena said she still gets embarrassed when English speaking students ask, 'What are you saying?'

That may be one reason why she and her other classmates easily revert to speaking Spanish among friends in the ELL classroom.

Yet it's tough to know if immersing students in English is the right way to teach students, said Rogers. In her first year in the Moffat County position, Rogers was recruited from the Denver area where she taught in a bi-lingual classroom.

This year, one class period at the high school is dedicated for a study hall where Rogers can answer questions in Spanish to help students with their variety of classes.

Yet the reward of learning English varies by student. Some desperately want to graduate while other students become apathetic, a common response to learning among many teenagers, she said.

But the goal of the district is to help students become fluent. That means working up through the district's system of classifying students' English aptitude. Level 1 represents a little to no grasp of the English language. Level 4 represents students who are fluent.

"Our goal is to get ones to the two level and threes to the four level," Rogers said. "If I'm doing my job, I should be working myself out of a job."

Senior, Juan Valencia learns English at school as well as at his job with Chaos Ink in Craig. But Valencia's goal of learning English is two-fold.

"I want to learn to speak to every people," he said. After a pause he said he hoped that learning English, "will help me have American girlfriends."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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