Okla. District Picks Path Less Followed for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 03, 2005 7 min read
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Sam Anaya doesn’t remember anyone in the local public school system here giving him special help in English when he entered kindergarten as one of a handful of children in his grade who spoke only Spanish.

“I was just thrown in,” recalls Mr. Anaya, who is Mexican-American. He went on to graduate from Hennessey High School in 1995 and now teaches 1st grade at Hennessey Elementary School.

How times have changed.

In a demographic shift that is ahead of the state as a whole, but representative of many small towns in the region, Hispanics make up nearly 27 percent of the enrollment in the 800-student Hennessey school district, up from 18.2 percent in the 2000-01 school year. The change is even more apparent at Hennessey Elementary, where 35 percent of the pupils this school year are Hispanic.

Denise Gonzales joins her teacher, Sam anaya, in front of her dual language class at Hennessey Elementary School.

In response to those changes, the district has adjusted how it teaches English-language learners, largely banishing the sink-or-swim approach that Mr. Anaya remembers. Instead, the district is one of four in Oklahoma—and one of the few rural school districts in the region—to launch a two-way language-immersion program. In such programs, children from English- and Spanish-language backgrounds study together to learn both languages.

‘More Comfortable’

Looking toward his 1st graders—10 who speak Spanish at home, five who speak English, and three who speak both languages—Mr. Anaya said recently that the district’s two-way immersion program, which is called Dos Amigos, or Two Friends, “makes them feel more comfortable.”

The effort is paying off: The district’s English-language learners have surpassed state and federal goals for English proficiency, and English-language learners in the program are doing better in reading, language arts, and math on standardized tests than other language-minority children in the school’s traditional classes.

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Chart: Oklahoma

Two-way immersion is a good way to go with English-language learners because it takes advantage of their literacy skills in their native language, said Lynore M. Carnuccio, a consultant on English-language learners who is based in Yukon, Okla. The approach is not realistic for most schools in the American heartland, however, because of a lack of bilingual teachers, she said.

“Unfortunately, in a lot of areas of the heartland, because we haven’t experienced large numbers of immigration for long periods of time, we don’t have qualified people who are true bilinguals,” Ms. Carnuccio said.

A New Approach

Hennessey, a town of 2,000 residents 60 miles north of Oklahoma City, is framed by winter wheat fields dotted with grazing cattle.

The school district has for years enrolled at least some children with limited English skills. For decades, Mexican families have come here to work in the town’s oil fields or on cattle and pig farms. A meat-packing plant in nearby Enid also employs some of the newcomers, who often come from the Mexican states of Zacatecas and Chihuahua.

But it was only in the past few years, as the Hispanic population surged, that Hennessey school officials began paying close attention to what works best with English-language learners.

Ultimately, they agreed with those who say that two-way language immersion is more beneficial than English-as-a-second-language instruction, which is by far the most common approach throughout Oklahoma and other states in the region.

The idea for Dos Amigos was hatched by a former superintendent and introduced in the 2002-03 school year.

“When I got here, what I saw was appalling,” said Patrick Marc-Charles, who was hired as a bilingual liaison for parents in the 2001-02 school year before being named the director of Dos Amigos.

When he arrived, the elementary and middle schools had an ESL pullout program that was led by a teacher’s aide whose Spanish was “atrocious,” according to Mr. Marc-Charles.

Now, for the students in Dos Amigos at least, the district has a comprehensive approach to working with English-language learners and their parents. Hennessey Elementary runs an after-school tutoring program in which bilingual high school students work one-on-one with English-dominant and Spanish-dominant children from Dos Amigos.

The elementary school employs a bilingual parent liaison—Lissette Orozco, who is Mexican-American and a 1997 graduate of Hennessey High—who sometimes interprets for parents during the school day. She also runs evening workshops for Spanish-speaking parents on supporting their children’s schooling.

Language support in the middle and high schools is somewhat less substantial, with one full-time ESL teacher, Susie G. Popplewell, at the middle and high schools and one halftime teacher assigned to give special help to second-language learners in math. Together, they serve 25 of the 43 middle and high school students with limited proficiency in English in daily pull-out classes, and provide occasional help to some of the others.

Ms. Popplewell said the district has a long-term goal of training all its mainstream teachers to work with English-language learners. In the meantime, while some teachers in regular classes go out of their way to help such students, others don’t, she said.

Dos Amigos

During a February class, children in Dos Amigos seemed constantly engaged.

Forty-seven of the 70 children in the program come from Spanish-speaking homes; the rest come from English-speaking households. Dos Amigos enrolls 48 percent of the 117 English-language learners at the elementary school. A longtime teacher who specializes in reading but doesn’t have an ESL endorsement serves the rest in pullout classes. English-language learners spend 15 to 30 minutes per day in those classes, depending on their skill levels.

For the first half-hour of their day, 2nd graders in Ryan Schenk’s class quietly read to themselves in Spanish from books with titles such as Polita chiquitaHenny Penny—and Si le das una galletita a un ratón, or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

The children will first be taught to read in Spanish and won’t get formal instruction in how to read in English until 3rd grade.

On this particular morning, Mr. Schenk introduces a list of vocabulary words. “Vamos a estudiar palabras que tienen diptongo,” he says. (“We’re going to study words that have diphthongs.”)

The students dutifully repeat the words in Spanish, but comment on them in English.

Cuarto, is that your back or your neck?,” asks Skylar Holder, who speaks English at home.

“It’s a room,” Abraham Ortega, who speaks Spanish at home, tells her.

Skylar and the other children who speak English at home seem to understand most of what Mr. Schenk says in Spanish, though they typically use complete sentences only when prompted by the teacher or when reading aloud.

Most of the students who speak Spanish at home choose to speak English with their classmates.

When 2nd grader Karina Orozco, who was born in the United States and speaks Spanish and English at home, is asked why she chooses to speak English with her classmates in Dos Amigos, she says that English is “cool” and “I’m more used to it.”

But it’s useful to know Spanish, she says, because “you can go to different places to talk with other people in other towns.”

Meeting Goals

Thanks to Dos Amigos, the Hennessey school district didn’t have any problem meeting requirements set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for teaching English to children with limited proficiency in English, said Uwe Gordon, the superintendent of the Hennessey schools.

Last school year, in fact, the Hennessey district—which has 160 English-language learners in its elementary, middle, and high schools—met the goals for English proficiency under the federal law with the English-language learners in the elementary school alone. And the middle and high school students with limited proficiency in English easily met the state goals as well.

The state had required that at least 40 percent of such students in every school district show progress in English, and that at least 10 percent test as proficient in the language and thus graduate from needing special services.

Nearly half of the 107 school districts in Oklahoma that have federally funded programs for English-language learners didn’t meet those goals.

Hennessey had help getting its two-way language-immersion program off the ground: In 2001, the federal government awarded the district a five-year, $1.49 million grant to start its program. The grant ends next year.

The district will keep the two-way program after the grant runs out, Superintendent Gordon said, though it may have to eliminate the program’s two administrative staff members.

Money, though, is just one of the challenges in keeping the program running.

Mr. Marc-Charles said the biggest task in running the two-way program is hiring bilingual teachers.

Currently, for instance, a parent who is bilingual in English and Spanish, but is not a certified teacher, is teaching the kindergartners in the Dos Amigos program. She’s being supervised by a substitute teacher in the same class who is a certified teacher but speaks only English. The regular teacher is on maternity leave.

When asked his advice for other rural districts trying to meet the needs of children who don’t speak English, Mr. Gordon said: “Address the issue. Put yourself in their shoes.”

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