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Lex schools adapt to English language learners

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Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 8:26 am

Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series looking at Lexington Public School’s student demographics and how the school helps all students succeed in the classroom.

LEXINGTON, Neb. – The vast diversity of the student body at Lexington Public Schools includes new students who are relocating from another area or from another country, many of whom are starting to learn the English language.

A three-page list of new enrollees to the Lexington Public Schools from January through Feb. 11 of this year provided by administrators, lists students born in South Africa, Kenya, Iraq, North Sudan, Sudan, Guatemala, Somalia, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico.

Coming from such diverse places where English is often not spoken some students are not fluent in English or ready for “mainstream” or regular English speaking classes at LPS once they arrive.

Building off LPS’s adaptability to students of all backgrounds and skill levels, the school system inaugurated a Newcomer Center in a separate module building next to Sandoz Elementary School this year staffed by two teachers.

The launching of the Newcomer Center at Sandoz provides a focused approach to get beginning English language learners attempting to grasp basics a strong start to their school careers.

“The Newcomer Center was set-up for students with no English background as a good spot to build a foundation for English,” said Newcomer Center teacher Maurita Runkel.

Students from all parts of the district, regardless of age or what elementary school they would attend, are grouped by ability level and needs at the Newcomer Center, Runkel said.

The center enrolls 25 students who are taught by a group of two teachers and two paraprofessionals via team teaching, Runkel said.

“It teaches the students to be independent and to help each other,” Runkel said about the benefits of her students learning in a small group environment.

The beginning of the school year started with the bare basics for Newcomer Center students, said Newcomer Center Teacher Carol Floth.

“We had to start with things like this is school, this is where the bathroom is. We do lots of modeling of expectations,” Floth said.

A strong desire to learn and growth were things Newcomer students showed everyday, Runkel said.

“Some fourth and fifth graders come in August with no English language skills and now they’ve jumped a few grade levels,” in English comprehension, Runkel said.

Runkel said every staff person who works with students receives some type of ELL in-service training.

Besides developing English language skills, Newcomer Center students focus on boosting their literacy and Math abilities, Runkel said.

Once they reach a desired level of comprehension in literacy, Math and English language skills, they are transitioned to regular classes. Earlier this semester four students from the Newcomer Center had already moved on to regular classrooms, Floth said.

More individual teaching help via English Language Learner teachers and sheltered learning classes at Lexington Middle School was already available.

At Lexington Middle School, ELL students in Maria Aguirre’s class work on writing skills first by taking in information.

The topic is on animals one would find at the zoo (students were scheduled to visit the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha the next day).

Students listened and wrote down notes as a teacher read aloud a description of different animals, what they eat and where they live.

The salt water crocodile and giraffe were some animals students learned and wrote about. The in-class assignment was to write one sentence with correct punctuation on an animal of their choice from the ones listed and read about.

Each student was required to read aloud in an effort at pronunciation. One student read: “For me giraffe is a little bit disgusting, it chews its cud.”

Different levels of English comprehension and pronunciation skills were evident as some students sounded out each word and struggled more than others who simply read their sentence slowly with accents.

Aguirre said she works with two levels of students. Level one students are Basic English learners like those at the Newcomer Center. Level Two students are Sheltered Instruction students who are more advanced student within ELL. Some students may spend reading class time with an ELL teacher in an effort to boost their reading skills.

A long-term goal for Aguirre is to get her sheltered instruction students to graduate from her class and move into regular education instruction.

“It’s a huge celebration, we try to do that each Quarter. We look at Star Reading, NeSA scores, all grades, and teacher recommendations. We print students a certificate and get them a cake,” Aguirre said about a student graduating from her class and moving into a regular classroom.

Like Newcomer Center teachers Floth and Runkel, Aguirre said a guiding teaching tool for her is using lots of visual cues and repetition.

Easing students into class work is another successful tool that can be used, Aguirre said.

“I don’t want to do every step for them, I try to do one or two problems, show them examples, so they have practiced beforehand. Math is a difficult subject for many because it has a lot of vocabulary,” Aguirre said.

“Reading and comprehending the English language as a whole in core classes is the hardest for them,” Aguirre said.

Seeing students connect background knowledge or class knowledge or growing in their speaking skills was a rewarding aspect of her job, Aguirre said.

“Every small moment is a ‘Wow moment,’ like when they say something in English all by themselves for the first time. It’s one of the most gratifying moments.”

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