access, choice, education reform, opportunity

In our schools: Keys to helping non-native speakers learn

Neftali Martinez, 10, walks into the classroom and gets right to work.

He looks up the words “universe” and “biology” in the dictionary. He reads part of a story about outer space. He participates in a review session for the vocabulary test he will take in two days.

Sounds like a fairly typical third-grade reading class. But Neftali’s class at Navy Point Elementary School has only three students, and those children aren’t just learning about science and vocabulary words. They are still learning English.

Neftali, who was born in Mexico, is one of 451 English language learners in the Escambia County School District.

An English language learner is a student who was not born in the United States and whose native language is not English, or a student who was born in the United States but comes from a home in which another language is primarily used.

Like all Florida third-graders, Neftali and his peers will take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for the first time in April.

And while they will have special accommodations during the test — extended time and a Spanish-to-English dictionary — they take the same test as their English-speaking classmates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of children who spoke a language other than English at home rose from 4.7 million to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009. That is from 10 percent to 21 percent of the population in that age range.

In Escambia, there currently are nearly 60 more English language learners than last year’s 394, said Sandra Edwards, director of the district’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

In Santa Rosa County, there currently are about 180 English as a Second Language students.

Facing the challenge

Tamara Mitchell, a teacher in Navy Point’s ESOL program, said it is up to her and her colleagues to get young English language learners ready for the FCAT.

“We need to face the challenge to make these standards comprehensible,” she said.

Navy Point is one of nine ESOL “centers” in district schools where English language learners from multiple schools are grouped so they can be served better.

Mitchell teaches three third-graders from 8:15 to 10:15 a.m. every day. She also teaches a class made up of fourth- and fifth-graders. For the rest of the day, the students are in regular classrooms.

“I like that very much because that gives them the opportunity to interact with English-speaking kids,” she said. “They’re not sheltered by any means.”

Mitchell said knowing basic vocabulary is vital for English language learners to do well on the FCAT.

“The biggest challenge is to provide good content and at the same time provide English-language instruction,” she said. “The content gets pretty rigorous.”

This year, Mitchell has spent a lot of class time teaching her students about Greek and Latin root words, which helps the students understand meanings because the words are similar to many in their native languages.

She also uses a lot of visuals and technology when teaching — the students are frequently recorded on video going over what they’ve learned.

Neftali, who moved to Florida from Mexico when he was 3 years old, is in his third year in Navy Point’s ESOL program. He repeated second grade last year, but Mitchell said he is improving.

He said he has fun in ESOL class and that he is progressing, especially in reading.

“Homework gets easier and easier to do by myself,” he said.

ESOL sees an uptick

In order to exit the ESOL program, students must pass the FCAT, as well as a second test called CELLA — Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment.

Edwards said the goal is for students to finish the program in five or six years, but that it depends on how old they are when they begin.

“If we get them in kindergarten, we usually have them exited by second grade, on grade level, speaking the language with comprehension,” Edwards said. “If they come to us in middle school, it’s more difficult because they’re learning the language as well as academic concepts.”

She said passing the FCAT is a high expectation for ESOL students.

“I think it’s difficult, especially if they’ve not been here very long,” Edwards said. “But it is a Florida expectation, so we do everything we can.”

She said it is remarkable to see how eager ESOL students are to succeed.

“They want to get an education,” Edwards said. “We had a child last year in elementary school who took the FCAT, translated everything into Chinese, got the answer, translated everything back to English and got a 4.”

The highest a student can score on the FCAT is a 5. A 3 is considered passing.

Salem Alshamrani has three children in Navy Point’s ESOL program. His family moved to Pensacola from Saudi Arabia in 2009.

He said the program has helped his children catch up with their American peers.

Alshamrani’s 10-year-old son, Salman, is in Mitchell’s fifth-grade ESOL class.

“I am so proud of my son,” he said. “Sometimes I say words and he corrects me. I’ve (studied) English since I was 11.”

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