Equity & Diversity

ESL Students Pose a Special Challenge For Rural Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 20, 2001 17 min read
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A passing comment by a Korean student caused Deb Kimbell to make a crucial adjustment this year in what she’d been doing to help him and his brother—the only immigrant students in their rural high school here—cope with their classes.

The student told her he couldn’t understand anything that his teachers wrote on the blackboard. The reason, it dawned on Ms. Kimbell, the school’s English-as-a-second-language teacher, was that most teachers write in cursive,while the Korean students had learned only print letters in their ESL classes.

So before Ms. Kimbell did anything else, she taught 17-year-old Bum “Danny” Seo and 19-year-old Myung “Ben” Seo just enough about cursive writing to be able to decipher it.

It’s by such trial and error that Ms. Kimbell has implemented her district’s first formal ESL program to serve the handful of immigrant students whose families have recently moved to this town of 11,000 in the far northwestern corner of Iowa.

Ms. Kimbell is not alone. While urban school districts often have entire full-time staffs devoted to educating students with limited English skills, educators in the nation’s rural areas often have to rely largely on their own wits to build ESL programs.

Sometimes with just one new family enrolling in a district, administrators find themselves for the first time scrambling to purchase ESL materials, hire a part-time certified teacher, provide that teacher with extra training in how to work with students who are learning English, and find someone in the community who speaks Chinese or Bosnian who can interpret for parent-teacher conferences.

The task is daunting even in big cities with several universities and large immigrant populations. In rural areas, where institutions of higher education and people with cross-cultural experience are few and far between—and financial resources are typically scarce as well—the job can be overwhelming.

Era of Standards

But small streams of immigration into rural areas such as Spencer are becoming more and more commonplace—not only in Iowa, but also in other states with emerging immigrant populations, such as Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, and North Carolina.

“There are more immigrants coming in, so there will be more immigrants in rural communities,” said Michael Fix, the director of immigration studies at the Urban Institute, a Washington research organization.

Here in Iowa, still a predominantly rural state, the number of foreign-born residents who call the Hawkeye State their home grew 83 percent from 1990 to 1999, according to an Urban Institute analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

“The phenomenon [of immigrants in rural areas] isn’t that new, but the scope of it is,” said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Washington-based Rural School and Community Trust. “What’s different in the last few years is it’s clear there’s an obligation to take care of these kids. In an era of standards-based reform, it’s a big deal. At a small school, when [the test scores of] one immigrant child may mean a difference in the aid package, it’s something to be taken seriously.”

In Ms. Kimbell’s case, not only did she develop the district’s ESL program, she is the program. “I wrote the program,” she said, “I did it by looking at other programs. There are so many holes in it that I now see.”

The 2,210-student Spencer district hired her to start an ESL program after students with limited English skills enrolled in the district more than two years ago. For the school year that just ended, Ms. Kimbell divided her half-time teaching position between Bum and Myung Seo, a Korean middle school youth who has since left town, and six Mexican children enrolled in three different elementary schools.

She notes that Iowa’s laws and manual on English-language learners don’t provide a lot of practical guidance for her situation: trying to support just a small number of students with limited English skills in a school district that is completely geared toward teaching native English-speakers.

Educators in two rural districts in north-central Iowa—Lake Mills and Northwood-Kensett—said that they, too, have figured out on a local level how to integrate just a handful of students with limited English skills into their schools.

In launching an ESL program this year in Lake Mills Elementary School for a single Mexican family with two children, Cynthia L. Witt, the school’s principal, said she assumed her district was beginning an endeavor that would continue to grow.

“It’s a global community. It’s very obvious now that Lake Mills has to deal with all the cultures,” she said. “We’re going to have more students who come in who don’t speak English.”

Schools that receive only one or two immigrant students with a language barrier are under the same federal legal obligation to provide those students with a program to learn English as those districts that receive an influx of such students.

In addition, their English-acquisition programs must be taught by someone trained in the appropriate teaching methods, and LEP students’ parents have the right to receive information about their children’s progress in their native languages.

But federal grant programs aimed at English-language learners don’t make money available to districts with only a few students who have a language barrier. And, “on the whole, the advice and guidance nationally is geared toward a larger district with larger numbers of English-language learners,” said Mari B. Rasmussen, the director of programs for English-language learners in the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “There’s very little information and support out there for classroom teachers who may have one or two students who are learning English.”

To help fill the guidance gap, the national association Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages published a book last year called Managing ESL Programs in Rural and Small Urban Schools, written by Barney Bérubé, an ESL and bilingual education specialist for Maine’s department of education.

Mr. Bérubé writes that rural districts are more likely than their urban counterparts to lack qualified, experienced ESL teachers and to find the costs for teacher training prohibitive, given that universities may be located far away. Rural districts also are less likely to have policies for making adjustments for ESL students, and usually haven’t done much to incorporate teaching methods aimed at diverse populations, he points out.

But rural districts also offer several advantages, he adds. Staff members often are better connected to their communities and parents and, therefore, better able to help immigrant students to become part of the community. And in rural areas, a single ESL teacher may have only a few students, while urban ESL instructors may have classes of 20 or more students.

Carmen P. Sosa, the Iowa Department of Education’s consultant for ESL and bilingual education, acknowledges that the state’s resources to support rural districts in meeting state requirements and recommendations are limited. She notes that she is the only staff person assigned to oversee ESL and bilingual education, and she supervises foreign-language programs in the state as well.

Ms. Sosa said the state holds a conference every year for educators of students with limited English skills, and she visits schools upon request. Her visits have included only a few rural schools, she said.

Iowa law requires that teachers who work regularly with English-language learners be certified in ESL. But there’s a catch: If they received their credentials before 1988, which is true of many teachers in the state, they are exempt.

Ms. Sosa said that despite the loophole, any teacher providing ESL instruction should at least be taking in-service training or courses in English as a second language that would lead to receiving an endorsement in the field.

Yet none of the teachers instructing immigrant students in Spencer, Lake Mills, or Northwood during the 2000-01 school year had ESL certification or immediate plans to pursue those qualifications.

Teachers Seek Help

Ms. Kimbell, who is a certified English teacher, looked into it and found that she’d have to drive two hours one way to attend a university that offers ESL classes. Instead, she took two reading courses closer to home that she believes have helped her improve her ESL instruction.

Su Evans, who has an elementary education degree and teaches ESL classes for the two Mexican children at Lake Mills, said she hasn’t been able to find ESL courses close to home that fit her situation well.

Both of those teachers, however, had reviewed research about second-language acquisition on their own time.

At Northwood-Kensett Elementary School, ESL classes for several Mexican-immigrant children have been taught all year by a teacher’s assistant who has a college degree in business administration and is not a certified teacher. Julie Lines, the school’s principal, said she hasn’t received any pressure from the state to change how her school conducts its ESL program.

Ms. Sosa said the state does give districts that are new at setting up ESL programs some leeway in meeting state or federal requirements, “as long as they are aware they have to have a program and are working toward it.”

She said the state is trying to make it easier for Iowa’s rural districts to provide high-quality services. This year, for the first time, a federal grant permitted Iowa to offer an ESL-methods course free of charge through distance learning to 115 teachers who lived at least 50 miles from a university.

Rural teachers and school administrators in the three Iowa districts say they’re providing a level of support that is reasonable, given their limited funds. “The [state] funding doesn’t amount to much, and doesn’t come close to providing any salary and instructional material. The district assumes that,” said Dick Magnuson, the assistant superintendent of the Spencer schools.

The district spent $19,400 this past academic year on ESL services. But the state covered only $2,500 of those costs.

Rural Care

More than the role of credentials, rural educators emphasize the need for care and resourcefulness in integrating immigrant students into classes where every other student is a native English-speaker.

“Our teachers care so much, and they wanted to do everything right the first time,” said Ms. Witt, the principal of Lake Mills Elementary School. While her district is meeting the law, she said, “our philosophy is we don’t worry so much about compliance, but about what these kids need. This is really all about good teaching.”

And the parents of rural immigrant students in Iowa seemed to have a similar philosophy. The parents of the Korean students, as well as those of the Mexican children at Lake Mills and Northwood, all said in interviews that staff members at their schools have gone out of their way to give their children a good education—and have succeeded.

“I’m satisfied with the education of my children,” said Lucinda Villagomez, who moved her family of three girls to Northwood from Mexico in February of last year when she secured a job in a Northwood factory that makes tractor parts. “In the beginning, they didn’t know hardly any English, and it was a bit difficult for them,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “But they adapted rapidly. The teachers were very patient with them and helped them a lot.”

“The support was very good,” said Juan Carlos Ramírez, a fluent English-speaker who brought his wife, Gabriela Ramírez, and two children to Lake Mills from Mexico in January after he was hired as the safety manager for an international company. “When we arrived here, the first few weeks for my son, Carlos, were horrible, because he doesn’t speak English. Now, he’s learning English very fast.”

“A small-city education is good,” Jung Seo, Bum and Myung Seo’s father, said through an interpreter. He and the boys’ mother, Soon Seo, moved their family to the United States in part so their sons could learn English—what Jung Seo calls “the language of the world.”

In all three of the Iowa districts, a little extra help seems to have gone a long way. At Lake Mills, the school principal and teachers decided within a few days after the arrival of 6-year-old Carlos and 10-year-old Karla Ramírez that the children needed extra support to adjust to English and school.

“You can’t just immerse them in English and think they’re going to learn it,” said Julie Aamadt, Karla’s 4th grade teacher this past school year.

Ms. Evans, a Title I reading teacher who spent some of her day with 4th graders, noticed that on her first day at Lake Mills Elementary, Karla sat very still and stared off into space. “I said to her teacher, ‘Give her to me,’ ” Ms. Evans recalled.

In addition, she said, “Carlos was a very apprehensive 1st grader who didn’t want to leave home.” He clung to his mother and cried when she tried to leave him at school each day. So the school assigned both students to Ms. Evans for the first hour of each day. “A lot of that first month was spent just welcoming them,” she said.

But just days before the close of this past school year, it was evident that Ms. Evans also got down to business in teaching the two English vocabulary and helping them learn to read in English. Her goal for her classes, she said, has been to do whatever it takes to get the two to speak in English.

During a recent session, the children performed a skit with her based on the story of the Three Little Pigs. “I’m hungry,” says Karla, taking up a wolf stick puppet and moving it toward a house made of construction paper. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” she says.

“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” says Ms. Evans, holding up a stick puppet of a pig.

The wolf blows the house down, figuratively, and Karla and Ms. Evans steer two pig puppets toward another house of construction paper, where Carlos is holding a pig puppet. “Can we stay in here? The wolf blow—blew—our house down,” says Karla.

“Oh, sure,” answers Carlos.

A Bit of Advocacy

In Spencer, the extra help that Ms. Kimbell has given the Seo brothers has included a fair bit of advocacy outside the ESL class that she provided for two periods each day. With a little urging, she said, most teachers have been willing to make some adjustments that take into consideration the youths’ language barriers.

For instance, Ms. Kimbell asked Bum “Danny” Seo’s world-studies teacher, Lucas A. Dewitt, to consider an alternative to requiring him to make presentations in front of his whole class. “It was really intimidating for Danny to get up in front of people,” she recalled. “I talked with Lucas and said, ‘Work with me.’ ”

So for a while, Bum Seo earned the same credit as his classmates by giving presentations one-on-one to his teacher. By the end of the year, both Ms. Kimbell and Mr. Dewitt believed that approach was no longer necessary.

Earlier this spring, Bum Seo stands in front of his class along with two classmates to give an overview of important news of the 1980s. He alternates with his classmates in describing such events as a famine in Ethiopia, a civil war in Nicaragua, and changes in leadership in the former Soviet Union.

Glasnost means openness,” Bum Seo says, as one of his classmates pulls up a PowerPoint slide with facts on a large screen. “Before glasnost, Soviet Union citizens only knew what their leaders wanted them to know about the world.”

He seems relaxed, and other than the fact that he sticks to his written script a little more closely than his classmates do, his presentation doesn’t reveal a lack of knowledge of English. But afterward, back in the ESL classroom, he acknowledges, he was “really nervous.”

“Done. Everything,” he says, clasping his hands in triumph above his head.

The smooth presentation is a success for Ms. Kimbell as well, who worked behind the scenes with Bum Seo during ESL class, helping him gather information from the Internet and practice the pronunciation of the words in his presentation.

At Northwood-Kensett Elementary School, the assistance for students with limited proficiency in English appeared to be less formal than in the other rural districts.

Anne Marie Stumo, the teacher’s assistant assigned to tutor several Mexican children in the school, including the Villagomez girls, doesn’t have a self-contained space for meeting with the children. And it’s less clear how decisions about the children’s education are made.

For instance, Ms. Stumo said that occasionally her job as a teacher’s assistant for special education has taken precedence over her work with LEP students. She said that happened toward the end of this past school year when she had extra responsibilities with testing and was unable to schedule tutoring sessions.

But Ms. Lines, the principal, said that she was under the impression the tutoring sessions had been discontinued as the school year wound down because the children were doing well and no longer needed the extra help.

Ms. Stumo based her tutoring on ESL materials that she received free from a consortium focused on the education of migrant students. She also regularly asked the students’ teachers how she could help, she said. “I tried to reinforce everything that was taught in the classroom,” she said. “It seemed to have worked.”

Sharon C. Schaub, who had one of the Villagomez girls in her kindergarten class this last year, said the tutoring sessions were helpful, but could be strengthened if taught by a certified teacher or someone trained especially to identify gaps in what the children with limited English skills know.

However, she speculated, “we don’t have the money or the personnel. We’re struggling to hire a music teacher.”

Ms. Schaub added that she was frustrated throughout the year with the quality of communication that she had with Ms. Villagomez because of their inability to talk in the same language. For instance, at a parent-teacher conference this year, they used 10-year-old Cinthia Villagomez as an interpreter. “When you have a 3rd grader interpreting educational terms, I find that difficult,” Ms. Schaub said.

Other rural Iowa educators said they, too, had found it challenging to communicate with parents of students with limited English skills.

In Spencer, Ms. Kimbell bought a Korean-translation software program, intending to translate school information for the Seo brothers’ parents, but she soon discovered that it locked up the hard drive on her computer.

Mixing With Peers

In the rural districts, immigrant students’ peers, meanwhile, have helped smooth the way for the newcomers.

Sally S. Gavin, Carlos’ 1st grade teacher at Lake Mills, said the girls in her class practically fell all over Carlos, trying to welcome him to the class. Ms. Aamadt, Karla’s 4th grade teacher said she had a particularly warm group of students this year, which aided Karla’s adjustment. She noted that girls in the class have included Karla in slumber parties.

In Northwood, native Iowans seemed to welcome the immigrant children as well. At the end of the school year, other children readily included Miriam, Lucy, and Cinthia Villagomez in recess activities.

Bum and Myung Seo give a lot of credit to their involvement in soccer for helping them to learn English, make friends, and subsequently learn more English. The brothers excelled on the field. Bum Seo, who had attended a special sports school in South Korea, was known around school as “the scoring machine.”

Soccer games also proved to be a way for the youths’ parents to connect with the school community. While their mother admitted she feels uncomfortable visiting her children’s school because of her limited English skills, she said she feels at ease attending soccer games.

The Seo brothers tried to fit in with their American peers. When they found that their classmates had trouble saying their Korean names, they chose to go by “Danny” and “Ben” among Americans. They dyed their hair blond this year, along with other students in the school who tried the fashion. And they took dates to the prom.

Soon Seo has family in New York City, and she and her husband had originally planned to live there. But they are happy that their jobs—they both work in a chicken processing plant—brought them to a rural area. “We love it here,” Mr. Seo says. “We plan to live here forever.”

The Seo family came from Seoul, South Korea’s capital and a city of 10 million people, and Jung and Soon Seo say they always dreamed of living in a rural area. They say the pluses override some of the inconveniences of living in Spencer, such as having to drive four hours one way to Minneapolis every couple of months to shop at a Korean grocery store.

Their sons say that for the sake of their education, particularly learning English, their parents made a good decision in moving to Spencer. “I don’t like staying with Koreans in the school,” said Myung Seo. “If Koreans [are] here, I speak Korean and I can’t learn English more.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as ESL Students Pose a Special Challenge For Rural Schools


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