Lisa Hay and Larry Steffes of the Mineral Point School Board held a special meeting Monday afternoon with school staff to listen to the challenges facing them and their English Language Learner (ELL) students.
To refresh, the Pointer School Board voted to not hire a halftime ELL teacher for the 15-16 school year. The position was to be shared with Fennimore with Mineral Point paying half of the teacher’s salary, or $41,000. Reasons given by some board members for the non-hire included the apparent high cost of the instructor, as well as a strong desire for the students to learn English.
A call was then put out to solicit volunteers in the community and surrounding areas that could assist with the ELL population.
Teachers spoke of many varied challenges facing them on a daily basis.
They are struggling translating documents for families as Google Translate isn’t always accurate.
Second grade teacher Denise Gorgen stated, “We need to be advocates for them because no one else is, which is sad.”
The staff agreed that ELL families are always willing to come to school events and are eager to participate in their children’s school lives, however, communication is not easy.
Rachael Schroeder, District Reading Specialist, who attempted to fill the ELL role last year for the district, said the position was overwhelming at times due to compliance issues with state and federal mandates, and high-stakes testing.
She also added that the ELL families Mineral Point has have parents that are working in the community and trying very hard to immerse and learn English. “We have been fortunate no families have come to us yet that have zero English knowledge,” she said, but added that likely will happen at some point so being prepared is vital.
Even though one parent may speak some English, it is difficult for the entire family to help their students continue learning at home after the school day is over. When Spanish is spoken at home, but a student learns to read in English at school, he/she becomes non-proficient in both languages.
Several staff members have taken it upon themselves to seek additional training on their own, but many teachers do not have the strategies to pull from when desiring to assist the ELL population.
Currently, the District has six Spanish ELL students. In the recent past, the District has also had Hindi, Japanese, and Russian speaking students who were not proficient in English.
Director of Pupil Services, Dixie Dempsey, stated she believes the District is discriminating against this population by not providing them with services and the staff agreed, saying that if a student is identified as having a hearing loss, or other disability, the District will be right there to assist.
Also stressed was that translating is not enough–ELL students need to feel welcome in the school community. Kindergarten teacher Jill McGuire said one of her eye opening moments during her ELL training was when it was stated “students need their own culture to be successful in our culture” and added that the greatest success is obtained by students when both languages are learned side by side at an early age.
Culture plays a vital role–ELL students don’t know American culture and Americans don’t always do the best job of getting to know their culture. For example, there can be a huge disconnect when American students come to school knowing fairytales and fables and ELL students do not.
Pre-K teacher Laura Busch pointed out that sometimes we don’t even know we are offending ELL families with salutations or other forms of communication. “Everyone feels bad,” she says. “And they are very trusting of us to take care of their children. I don’t want to lose that trust.”
Dempsey said there are two districts in CESA #3 that do not have ELL teachers on staff with Mineral Point being one. Darlington has 110 students in their ELL population and has two teachers and are looking for a third.
While it was pointed out that the high school Spanish students who came down to the elementary last year to help with translating were helpful, they were not a fix. Laurie Heimsoth, who teaches fifth grade, said she believes the high school students would be more helpful in the younger grades as, by the time the ELL student gets to the upper grades, the language is already so embedded it is even more difficult to learn.
Schroeder reiterated her point that the position of an ELL teacher can be very overwhelming, even for someone who has all the necessary training, so if a person doesn’t come from the educational world, he/she may struggle conveying concepts to families.
The mandated testing was also discussed and it was said that even high level English speaking students can have challenges with the rigorous requirements, so it must be terribly stressful for ELL students.
Staff agreed that we are not Darlington, however, these are still students who are not being served. They have families who only want the best for them, just like any parent wants the best for his/her child.
In addition to those quoted above, also present were staff members Marcia Roberts, Luke Francois, and Joelle Doye and community members Bobbi Jo Rury and Ruth Schriefer.