Family excels in two languages in Moffat County School District
Four children flourish at their studies, learning English, working to preserve Spanish
April 18, 2016
Craig — When Rosina Arellano used to drop off her son Nestor in kindergarten, it was tough for her to go home — maybe even impossible.
"He didn’t want to stay in school," said Nestor's father, Rogelio Arellano. "The first day that she took him to kindergarten, he was like, 'Don't leave me! Don't leave me!' She had to stay there. It was two hours, maybe. She had to sit by the window sill so he could see her."
Rosina said it was about two weeks before he could feel at all comfortable staying in school on his own. Nestor's shyness at school, or Nestor's downright fear, flowed from something other than the separation anxiety many young children feel. Nestor was the first-born to parents who'd recently come to the United States — who'd recently come to Craig — and he didn't yet know any English.
"He didn't know how to say spoon," said his father.
Rogelio recalled those days, about 15 years ago. Nestor, the oldest child, is now a 19-year-old student at Colorado Mesa University. His brother Alex, 18, is a student there, too.
"Those were hard times," Rogelio said, talking on a recent afternoon in the Sandrock Elementary School library.
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Life for Rogelio and Rosina Arellano has changed in the 18 or so years that they've been in the United States. Their two sons are excelling in college and their two daughters are flourishing in middle and elementary school. The kinds of language struggles experienced by the boys, Nestor and Alex, have not been so intense for the girls, Marlyn and her younger sister Diana, since they were able to learn English, as well as Spanish, at home — especially with older brothers around.
But a new challenge may also have emerged: keeping the gift of bilingual proficiency alive and keeping alive, too, the presence of their Mexican culture as they thrive in a Colorado town where mostly English is spoken.
Respecting a student's native language
The challenge the Arellanos face dovetails, in some ways, with the challenge the Moffat County School District encounters with its Spanish-speaking population: to instill an ability to learn and succeed in English and, at the same time, to cultivate a respect for students' native languages and cultures.
"It is important to honor that home language in the classroom," said Kristin Allen, an instructional coach at East Elementary School. "Even if I can't speak it, I'm going to honor it in any way that I can."
That includes, she said, using an interpreter, especially for parents.
It also includes, Allen said, "allowing students to speak Spanish with their peers. I think that's really important."
Kamisha Siminoe, principal of Sandrock Elementary School, noted that the English Language Learner population may speak languages other than Spanish.
"We've had a child who spoke Mandarin Chinese," Siminoe said. "The strategies were the same."
As East Elementary School Principal Sarah Hepworth said, "The educational strategy is not that these teachers can speak Spanish; it's that teachers can implement these (learning techniques)."
Andi Murphy, the district's ELL coordinator for kindergarten through 12th grade, said the district uses a "full immersion model" in its instruction.
"Children are not pulled out to learn language in isolation," she said. "They build their language by making connections to the core curriculum."
Murphy noted, too, that budget cuts over the last several years have created some challenges for the ELL program.
"It's hard to build a program when you don't know what resources will be given to it every year," she said. "Every year that I've been in this position the resources have been different."
Those resources, she explained, include staff members who can help students with language as they learn the core material.
"They're helping to develop (the student's) language along with the core curriculum at the same time," she said.
Murphy said those staff members don't have to be bilingual, but she noted that such a skill can help to craft connections and "build understanding."
For Marlyn Arellano, who's now an eighth-grader at Craig Middle School, one teacher who created such a connection was Mary Ginther, a preschool teacher at East Elementary School.
"I was a little scared, but since she knew Spanish, and since she helped me out, it made me a lot more comfortable," Marlyn said.
Preserving the native language while learning English
Rogelio and Rosina Arellano, along with their two boys, came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico nearly 20 years ago, first going to California and then coming to live in Craig, after Rogelio found good work in the area as a carpenter. Rogelio already knew some English then, and he speaks it flawlessly now. Rosina continues to learn English with the help of an online program called "English in a Flash" a resource Murphy said the district offers for parents.
Rosina said she's found learning English easier on a computer since she doesn't feel the nervousness she might feel with a person teaching her.
If learning English posed a challenge for the older boys about 15 years ago, preserving Spanish may pose the bigger challenge today. Diana, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Sandrock Elementary School, said she speaks Spanish at home with her mom, while she speaks English at school.
"When I was younger, I used to talk to my friends in Spanish, and other people looked at me like, 'What is she saying? Is she talking about me or something?' So that's why I stopped speaking Spanish in school: so people wouldn't get offended because they didn't know the language," Diana said.
Murphy, who noted that the school district wants ELL students to preserve their native languages, reacted sadly to Diana's observations.
"What just crushes my heart is to hear Diana say it's hard to speak her primary language and to feel comfortable with that," Murphy said. "I don't want any of our ELL students to feel that way. I want to empower them with the special gift they have."
Murphy said a bilingual model in school — where students learn Spanish and English — would help to treat that problem.
"It helps (each student) to have empathy for what the other one's going through," she said. "And they're both being challenged, and they both walk away with two languages."
Rogelio Arellano said he's watched other families slowly lose their Spanish-speaking abilities — and that concerns him and his wife Rosina.
"We, as parents, talk about it all the time," he said. "I know a lot of families where half of the family doesn't speak Spanish. Why is this happening? It's not right."
Marlyn mentioned St. Michael's Catholic Church as a place where the family can continue to speak and practice Spanish, both reading and writing.
"When we go to mass, there are a lot of things we have to read," she said. "And I do a lot of community service. I help with the little guys who don't really know English yet, so that's good for me."
Diana said she, too, is working on her reading in Spanish.
"If we're saying a prayer in our house, they're usually in Spanish," she said. "So sometimes they make me read it so I can try, but I'm not that good at it."
Her father quickly responded to that statement.
"You're getting better, though."
Then Diana added, with a chuckle, "We're going to Mexico in the summer, and they want me to start learning so it won't be embarrassing for me not speaking Spanish."
Benefits of bilingualism
Much of the Arellanos' desire to speak Spanish may be rooted in preserving a cultural part of their identity as they excel in their work and studies in the United States. But their bilingual abilities harbor other advantages, as well. Marlyn said she has a strong interest in the law, and she knows that her facility with two languages will allow her to reach more people in that profession.
"I know that I'll be able to help a lot more (with two languages)," she said. "I like that I can do that."
Rogelio Arellano said the oldest child, Nestor, is studying at Colorado Mesa University to be a project manager, and Alex, the second oldest, is studying criminal law at CMU.
As for Diana, she wants to work as a nurse or another medical professional who delivers babies.
"I just think it's interesting to be taking care of other people, and I think of how hard it can be but how good you can feel," Diana said.
Marlyn added, "I think she takes after my mom, because she likes taking care of people, too. She's always doing good stuff at the church. She helps out a lot with the little kids, like I do."
Something all of the children in the Arellano family share is a strong focus on education — one that started very early in their lives.
"When they were in preschool, I kept talking about going to college, going to college," Rogelio Arellano said, and then he added with a laugh: "I think that's how I got my older ones to go. I was bugging them so much, they finally just said, 'I'll go.'"