Number served by Cape's English Language Learners program rising steadily

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Cape Girardeau Central High School student Armando Sanchez graphs linear equations during an algebra quiz Tuesday at the high school. Sanchez was in the English Language Learners program in the Cape Girardeau School District from third grade through his freshman year. (Laura Simon)

Learning the English language for the first time is becoming a more frequent experience in Cape Girardeau's public schools and in the community.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the Cape Girardeau School District's English Language Learners program served more than 90 students, all of whom qualified for participation through a district-conducted assessment of their English proficiency. The number of children served has been rising steadily for about the past three years, said district special services coordinator Deena Ring, and many students are Spanish-speaking.

Cape Girardeau County's Hispanic/Latino population has grown 277 percent in the past 20 years from 300 in 1990 to more than 1,300 in 2010, according to a recent report by the county's health center that compiled data from the U.S. census and several state human services agencies.

To cope with the higher numbers, the school district added another teacher to its ELL program staff at the end of 2011 and also started offering after-school tutoring in recent years. A change for the district is that all eight of its schools now need the program to serve students, Ring said. Portions of the program have also been offered in the summer.

Ring said the main effect from the influx of ELL students is that the district's program is becoming more comprehensive. There is planning ongoing now to reach out to parents, too, which Ring said is necessary for families to have a "seamless transition" into life in Cape Girardeau and helps promote academic success for students.

Parental engagement can sometimes be more difficult when a student has a non-English-speaking parent or faces differences between languages and cultures at school and home in combination with other issues, such as limited parent education.

Educational levels of students and their parents in the Cape Girardeau School District have a wide range, Ring said.

"Some students we see have no education at all but are the age to be in second or third grade," Ring said. "Sometimes there is no education foundation for us to build on."

Finding the right way to educate students and their parents at the same time can be challenging, she said.

Many districts with large urban populations have involved parents by using parental education programs. While there are no concrete plans to do that yet in Cape Girardeau, staff members are working toward trying to better involve parents, Ring said. Several events could be planned in the next school year to involve parents of ELL students, she said.

Becky Atwood, director of the adult education center overseen by the school district, said she hopes the center and the district's ELL programs can form a cooperative arrangement where there are more opportunities for parent engagement.

The center offers English classes to adults three days per week during the school year during the day and evenings, and Atwood said many young mothers, especially those who are Hispanic/Latino with children in the district, have shown interest in learning more about the school system and their child's education during classes in the past several years. The center is also serving more non-English-speaking adult students than in years past, she said.

Armando Sanchez, a senior at Central High School who was born in Mexico, participated in the district's ELL program from the time he arrived at Clippard Elementary in third grade until his freshman year, when it was determined he had learned English well enough to leave the program.

"When I first got here, I didn't imagine I would be able to understand everything I do now," he said.

Parent involvement in his school experience was limited, sometimes because of language barriers, he said, although his family has always expected him to make good grades. A tougher issue was the competing obligations of school and family, he said -- he missed too many days his senior year, partly because he was helping his parents open a restaurant. He is now attending summer school but said he is determined to catch up and will graduate in December.

Atwood said one way the center hopes to reach more parents is to begin an "early bird" English language learning class for adults in the fall. The center will begin holding the classes at that time of day to allow more access to a number of non-English speakers who have to be able to attend before 10 a.m. because they are employed at area restaurants, she said.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

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