Commentary

English-language learners compete against the odds

CommentaryFebruary 16, 2014 

Carol Dukes, center, is pictured with her ESL Resource Tutoring class, where students whose native languages include Chin, Mandarin Chinese, Yoruba, Arabic, Spanish, Persian, Jarai and Nepali have work on their assignments.

COURTESY OF CAROL DUKES

There are approximately 11,700 students whose primary language is one other than English enrolled in Wake County public schools. More than 225 different languages are spoken in the homes of these students, whose knowledge and mastery of the English language is at varying levels.

Just as our other students, these English Language Learners (ELLs) are expected to satisfy all course, credit, and testing requirements to earn a diploma. They must write essays, read complex novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird, and give oral presentations while learning a new language.

In my 14-year tenure teaching English as a Second Language at Broughton High School, I’m continually reminded of the significant student diversity in our school system, and the importance of public education for all. Sadly, our current legislature is robbing all children of their right to a free public education through its tax breaks for millionaires, vouchers for private schools, and draconian cuts to classroom spending.

WCPSS has diverse population

At Broughton, there are 150 ELLs from 21 different countries who now call North Carolina home. Last fall, I asked one of my ESL classes to write the word gratitude in their native tongue. I marveled at the variety of languages spoken in this particular class: Jarai, Karen, Chin, Arabic, Nepali, Chinese, Spanish, and French. My students would eventually create a gratitude list and write about their feelings. No. 1 on nearly each list was the free education they receive; yet, this education is being infringed upon as public education funds are reallocated to private and charter schools.

Why have these students come here? Many of these young adults suffered extreme poverty and persecution in their countries.

Tales of endurance

A Chin student fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, hidden between stacked pallets in the back of a truck. I heard the story of the girl whose mother was jailed for attending an underground church in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. There are the Bhutanese refugees who suffered severe discrimination in their homeland, including denial of education. I can only try to imagine the horror our Iraqi students experienced when their schooling was interrupted so violently by war.

For all of them, public education is a gift to be cherished. We need to continue to strengthen our public schools instead of draining resources from them to support private ones. Public money is for public education.

In-school support necessary

Our ELLs spend long nights translating their texts and assignments into their first language before attempting to compose an essay or create a project in English. It’s grueling work, and although they arrive at school exhausted, they never seem to complain. They’re grateful for the opportunity to be in a safe school environment, even if it means not having the time to participate in fun extra-curricular activities and sports.

What do we give our students? Their strong work ethic and respect for education take them far, but its also the support they receive from classroom teachers that enables them to succeed. In Wake County, there are 35 different sheltered classes — content courses that are organized to support ELLs — offered at the high-school level. The teachers of these classes modify the academic language of history, math, literature, and science to facilitate understanding.

But it’s not easy! They may have a student who attended school in a refugee camp, and it is their job to impress upon that student the significance of remaining in school, instead of working, to earn a diploma. We’re fortunate that Wake County has so many educators who are willing to teach these classes to ELLs, for these students are subjected to the same assessments as their English speaking peers the assessments by which we now measure teachers.

Current exam structure an additional burden

Although it takes five to seven years for an adolescent to learn enough English to compete with native English speakers, ELLs are required to take most standardized tests during their first year in our schools. End-of-year assessments test not only their knowledge of the subject matter, but also their English proficiency. This adds stress to the students lives, as well as the history or science teacher whose test scores are published and reviewed.

Neither these students nor their teachers will ever get credit for moving forward on standardized tests as a group. LEP (Limited English Proficiency) is a subgroup that will never show growth, because as soon as these students show growth, they’re placed into general subgroups and create a huge error in measurement. As one of my former senior administrators for ESL once quipped, it’s like a doctor walking into a hospital and asking, “Why are all these sick people here?”

Many educators suggest we return to the days when ELLs were given two years before taking any standardized tests. This makes sense. We would be thrilled if reports were published on the number of students who test out of LEP status and exit ESL. Let’s allow these success stories to contribute to their schools’ report card.

Wake County schools are to be commended for celebrating diversity and making all students feel welcome. Educators who modify language to help their English Language Learners access the curriculum deserve praise. They know that high school ELLs have a limited amount of time to become academically proficient in English.

Teachers who agree to teach academic courses to these students, despite the fact that their standardized test scores may not be stellar, deserve special recognition. Their answer to the question “why do you teach?” is most likely similar to mine: I teach so I can help provide free education to all students.

Carol Duke teaches English as a Second Language at Broughton High School. Contact her via email at cdukes1@earthlink.net.

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