Schools reaching out to teach English
Parents of the approximately 40 students enrolled in the English Language Learners Program in Fairfield are becoming more involved in their children’s education, said curriculum director Marci Dunlap.
Dunlap said parent engagement bodes well for students learning a foreign language while attending school. She attributed the positive change to the faculty’s extra efforts to accommodate ELL students’ families. During Fairfield Community School District parent-teacher conferences Thursday, for instance, Dunlap made sure there was a translator on hand to aid in communication between parents and teachers.
“We’ve noticed higher attendance at conferences,” she said. “We’ve worked harder to have translators there to make them feel more comfortable; we’re doing the right thing now.”
The program’s new teacher this year, Mary Rose Kitch, said she also has focused on build relationships with not only her students, but with their families as well.
“The parents are very interested in the education of their kids,” she said. “They are huge supporters, and want them to learn English for their success.”
Kitch teaches English to students with a background in one of five different languages, though she said the majority come from Spanish-speaking homes. She juggles her time between Pence and Washington elementary schools, Fairfield Middle School and Fairfield High School. Kitch either pulls students out of class to work with them individually or assists in other teachers’ classes.
While enrollment in the program has fluctuated between 30 and 40 in the six years Dunlap has been in her position, enrollment statewide has grown rapidly. According to a report from the Iowa Department of Education, the number of English Language Learners has doubled in the past decade to roughly 20,000. In 2011, two thirds of English language learners identified their primary language as Spanish.
Fairfield first implemented the program in 1970 to comply with federal regulations requiring equal access to education. Dunlap said it’s essential in helping students in all areas of school, not just language.
“Imagine going into a classroom and being held accountable for academic objectives when you don’t understand the language,” she said.
The majority of Kitch’s students speak their first language at home. This, she believes, should not be looked at as a negative, but instead as something to be aware of.
“I teach them skills and tricks to help at home and in other classes,” she said.
For 19-year-old Steffany Rios, formerly of Ottumwa, working with Kitch as a translator during conferences was a reminder of her days in a similar ELL program.
Rios moved from Los Angeles to Ottumwa at seven. While she could speak some English, she spoke Spanish at home.
“My mom didn’t know any English,” said Rios. “I would translate for her, and would tell her what different words meant.”
Rios said ELL helped in all areas of study.
“It helped with my grades a lot,” she said. “I went from a D to a C in one semester and then to a B the next semester.”
Rios moved to Fairfield one month ago with her boyfriend, who works at Aranda’s Mexican Restaurant. When Dunlap approached Rios about translating for ELL families, she accepted.
Rios’s story reminded Kitch of why she became an ELL teacher.
“The kids are so brave and interested in learning,” she said.
Kitch said she fell in love with ELL while studying for her post baccalaureate in speech competition and drama five years ago. As part of her schooling, she sat in on ELL classes, and even helped the students put on a play.
“They try so hard,” said Kitch, “the spirit of the kids is contagious.”
Since then, Kitch obtained certification to teach in the field. Though in her first year, she said her background in education has helped her be effective. She said her first priority is to make students comfortable around her.
“I have to make them laugh to get them to pay attention,” she said. “They’re not afraid around me.”
This open atmosphere has created a safe place for her students to learn, she said.
“It’s overwhelming learning a new language,” she said. “They tend to stay quiet in other classes, because they’re afraid to make mistakes.”
Kitch said many of her students know enough to communicate with peers, or “playground English,” but have a harder time with the written word and pronunciation.
Dunlap said she’s happy to see the enthusiasm and compassion Kitch has brought to the program. And Kitch said she’s thrilled the job was available.
“It’s a real opportunity to work in Fairfield,” she said.