Teaching keeps getting tougher as Charleston County School District teachers struggle to instruct students who speak little or no English.
Goodwin Elementary fourth-grade teacher Kate Reutter knows the troubles of teaching all too well. Coming out of the College of Charleston's School of Education, Reutter found herself dealing with a situation they did not prepare her for in class: not all of her students spoke English.
"You know these kids are smart, that they have potential," Reutter says. "But they can't understand what you're trying to teach them at first."
"Actually, you would be surprised how quickly they pick up English," says Reutter, who is taking the school year off to have her first child. "First they pick up catchphases from television, music, and movies. With this pop culture foundation, they learn the vernacular."
Reutter says she modified tests so the language was easier to understand for the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students.
The language barrier becomes an issue at other times. During a fire drill, as the fire alarm bell rang incessantly and all the other students were calmly filing out of class, one little Hispanic girl looked confused. Reutter could not recall how to say "fire drill" in Spanish. So she calmly told the girl: "Fuega. Fumar." Fire. Smoke. The girl went into hysterics.
Language complications also arise during parent/teacher conferences. None of the school's translators were available when Reutter needed to explain to non-English speaking parents that their child was falling behind in math. Reutter was forced to translate through the student, but she eventually discovered the student was actually telling the parents that everything was going swimmingly in math.
Once the students become proficient in English the problems do not end, Reutter says. ESOL students often abandon their native tongues in the basic human drive to be accepted by their peers. Reutter says she feels the need to encourage them to retain knowledge of their first language, because being bilingual would give them an advantage that most Americans lack.
Reutter is far from alone. Charleston County's ESOL program director Rachel Amey says there are 1,610 ESOL students in the county's 62 schools who speak over 32 foreign languages. To battle the language barrier, the school district has 30 ESOL teachers who jump among the county schools, giving each ESOL student from three to six hours of English lessons a week. That is an average of 54 students with various levels of fluency for every ESOL teacher. Instead of trying to hire teachers who speak all 32 tongues, the County chooses to teach the students with an English immersion program.
Pat Majors is one of those teachers. Majors found time in her hectic schedule at West Ashley High School to respond to some questions via e-mail. She says she's been teaching ESOL for 16 years and the job has always been challenging. She gets students ranging from beginners to near fluent, which means she juggles four lesson plans.
Once the students leave Majors' classroom, she monitors them to make sure they are doing all right in other areas.
"Younger children acquire social English more quickly because they are in a peer group that is learning the language," Majors says. Older students have their own advantages as well. ESOL high school students are not learning math, science, and reading for the first time. And many students have developed their own learning strategies.
"I am frequently amazed by them," Majors says.
Like Reutter, Majors encourages his students to read for pleasure in their native tongues and to take foreign language classes so as not to lose their first language skills, especially the written communication, which erodes quickly. This is not an option for all students, though.
"Maintaining Spanish is a possibility, but what about Mandarin, Arabic, etc.?" Majors asks.
Majors says she was immersed in Spanish as a small child, but when her family moved to Minnesota they did not encourage her to keep up with it. She had to relearn the language in college.
And for other students, having English as a second language is not enough.
"Many of my students opt to take foreign languages, adding third and fourth languages to their repertoires," Majors says.
Macarena Keating is another ESOL teacher. By day, she teaches the students at Lambs Elementary and Alice Birney Middle, and on some nights, she teaches parents, some of whom come straight from work, eager to learn English from her.
On those long days, Keating says she leaves home at 7 a.m., not to return until 9 at night.
"Sometimes I get really tired and think about going home early, but then here comes a father with paint or dirt on his hands, and he tells me how sorry he is that he didn't have time to go home and wash. And I tell myself, if he wants to learn, I want to teach." Keatings says she personally arranges for babysitters to take care of their kids while they're studying.
ESOL night classes are a popular program, according to Amey. A few years ago, she says, the County Community Education program was considering cutting funding for the night English courses, but so many immigrants showed up to ask for the program's preservation that the county decided to keep it going.
As to the effectiveness of the ESOL program, Amey says they don't have stats on the dropout rate of the various ESOL students. Demographics on the South Carolina Education Department's website differentiate only for gender and whether students are Caucasian or African-American.
A 2006 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that South Carolina is improving in the ESOL arena. The state is one of only 17 nationwide where "students with limited English proficiency met adequate yearly progress goals," as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the report also states that of elementary school students from the 2003-2004 school year, only 16 percent of students with limited English passed South Carolina's standardized math tests compared to 19 percent of African-Americans, 22 percent of "economically disadvantaged" students, 24 percent of Hispanics, and 49 percent of Caucasians. (Students can fall under more than one category, such as being "economically disadvantaged" and Caucasian.) Of the 48 states which reported data to the GAO, only Hawaii, Maine, Montana, and Wyoming had lower percentages than South Carolina for students with limited English.
The report puts part of the blame on the U.S. Department of Education, though. The Education Department has provided some assistance with training, peer reviews, and flexibility in addressing ESL students, the report reads, but one-third of 33 state officials who were contacted said they were uncertain of the Education Department's requirements partly due to the fact that the federal government has issued limited written guidance.
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