After asking a question about the night sky, Tara Ward gently reminded her students, “Please use English,” when she hears an answer in Korean or Vietnamese.
Ward, a teacher in a regular second-grade classroom at Mill Creek Elementary School, works with three Korean and two Vietnamese children among her 19 students. As of last week, 341 students in the Bulloch County public schools qualified for English to Speakers of Other Languages services, reported ESOL coordinator Georgiana Darsey. The number has grown 86 percent since the 2008-’09 school year, and Darsey estimates that more than 100 teachers in the system now host ESOL students.
Although not one of the school district’s seven official ESOL teachers, Ward is better prepared to help than most general education teachers. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Florida, where ESOL courses were required for all would-be teachers and received an extra teaching certification in ESOL. Ward, now in her ninth year teaching and her fourth at Mill Creek, has since earned an education specialist degree from Georgia Southern.
She took two years each of Spanish, French and Italian in high school and college but says she is far from fluent in any of these. Her husband’s stepmother is Chinese, so Ward has also picked up some Mandarin words from her, as she did a few words of Korean from the husband of a former Mill Creek art teacher.
“He taught me to say ‘come here’ and ‘sit down’ and ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ just some basics that I try to learn in every language so I can at least make someone feel a little bit at home,” Ward explained. “I couldn’t imagine going to a new school and sitting in a classroom for a day where you didn’t hear a single word of your own language.”
In the classroom
The five immigrant children form one of several small groups that circulate to different learning activities in Ward’s classroom. When they arrive at her table, she introduces some basic English words that other second-graders already know, uses more pictures, acts things out and uses technological tools such as the iPads and Rosetta Stone language software the school system has provided with ESOL funding.
But Ward’s advice for other teachers dealing with students from different language backgrounds boils down to two words, “empathy and patience.”
Regular classroom teachers have help. Each morning one of the school system’s official ESOL teachers, Donna Lowery, calls the English learners in Ward’s classroom away to an ESOL classroom.
Lowery sees Mill Creek’s 18 participating ESOL students in two batches. In one session, she meets with seven kindergartners and three fourth-graders. In the other, are four second-graders and four fifth-graders. Later in the day, Lowery goes to Sallie Zetterower Elementary School and works with 15 ESOL students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Her students’ first languages include Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. Kindergarten through third-grade students spend 45 minutes with her, and fourth- and fifth-graders spend 50 minutes.
This is Lowery’s second year as an ESOL teacher. For 19 years before that, she was a regular classroom teacher. She holds a master’s degree and earned her ESOL endorsement several years before she became an ESOL teacher.
In her earlier role, teaching kindergarten at Portal Elementary School, Lowery discovered she enjoyed working with Hispanic students and their parents. But other than a half-year course in Spanish for teachers, she has no background in a specific foreign language. ESOL training focuses on techniques that can work with students from any language background.
Lowery sees that her youngest students, the kindergartners, have less difficulty picking up English, because they are still instinctively acquiring language.
“The older a child is, I think, you have more difficulty knowing what techniques and strategies to use with that child,” she said.
A proficiency test
ESOL students take an English proficiency test each year that Lowery said helps determine what help they need and also whether they remain in the program. Parents can also opt not to have their children served by ESOL teachers.
Of the 341 students recently eligible, 297 were receiving services, Darsey said.
Earlier this school year, when there were 320 ESOL-eligible students, they included this many from each of these language backgrounds: 223 Spanish-speaking, 72 Korean, eight Vietnamese, five Chinese, five Indian, three Arabic, two German, one Russian and one French. These numbers do not include exchange students, said Hayley Greene, public relations specialist for the school system.
The total changes almost daily, Greene remarked. Twenty-one more ESOL-eligible students had been added by the time Darsey provided the higher total.
While the presence of Georgia Southern University helps account for the diversity of language backgrounds, it doesn’t explain how Koreans have become the fastest growing segment. For this and the fact that ESOL enrollment has grown by 29 percent this year alone, Darsey offered a different explanation.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a secret — Claxton Poultry,” she said.
Since 2005, the chicken processing plant in neighboring Evans County has had an arrangement with a South Korean company, Kukjei, which arranges for South Koreans to immigrate on work-based visas. After some years when no Koreans came to work at the plant, 2011 has brought the most so far, 98, a Claxton Poultry spokesman said.
Almost all the Korean workers and their families settle in Bulloch County. In an exchange of emails in November, a Kukjei representative told Darsey to expect 62 more Korean students in the coming months.
Planning for growth
Despite the growth, ESOL students so far make up just 3 percent of Bulloch County schools’ nearly 10,000 students.
The system has almost $560,000 earmarked for serving immigrant children this year, Greene said. But she explained that most of this comes from regular state funding and local tax money apportioned for all students. Bulloch’s federal Title 3 funding this year includes $36,994 for services to Limited English Proficiency students and $10,250 for services to immigrant students.
Earlier this year when the AdvancED organization renewed the accreditation of all 15 schools in the system, the accreditation team identified a need for strategic planning for a growing number of ESOL students.
A new ESOL task force that includes teachers, administrators and parents met for the first time Nov. 29. Along with goals to reduce pupil-teacher ratios and provide training and support to regular classroom teachers, Darsey said, the group will look for ways to improve the schools’ communication with parents. The district already uses a service called Language Line to obtain interpreters for various languages via telephone.
“We have this assumption quite often that it’s just the ESOL parents that need communication in another language, but if we have served a student for several years, and they have exited our program, quite often their parents still don’t understand the language, so we need to be sensitive to that,” Darsey said.