Number of English Language Learners doubles in school district

Trend mirrors national stats

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston resident Yetha Lumumba moved to Vermont from Democratic Republic of the Congo during tenth grade. Three times a week, the high school senior joins his Champlain Valley Union High School peers from a variety of countries to learn English as a second language.

Lumumba, a native French speaker, and his classmates are among a growing number of English Language Learners (ELL). The number of ELL students in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, of which Williston is a part, has nearly doubled in the last year. Williston residents comprise more than half of the population. The tally of ELL students this week: Allen Brook School, 7; CVU High School, 12; Williston Central School, 17. The numbers will change; three new ELL students are expected at Williston Central this month.

“The whole program is constantly evolving,” said Johanna Shaw, one of two full-time teachers of English as a second language in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. A year ago, Shaw served as an English language tutor 15 hours a week. By June, she was up to 30 hours. Last month, Shaw became full-time, shuttling between CVU, Charlotte Central School, Hinesburg Community School, and Williston Central School.

“It’s really important to recognize that this (increase in numbers) is a national demographic trend,” said Jim McCobb, the ELL education program coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education. “It’s a trend that is being seen in most states in the country and it will probably continue.”

Some ELL students are from new immigrant families. Some are adoptees taken in by long-time residents. And some are children of refugees. The 53-plus students currently in the supervisory union represent 12 native languages.

“It’s a very diverse population in terms of languages represented, cultures they come from, family background, parents’ education… and all of those factors can have a big impact on the educational program,” McCobb said.

“I think that there are going to be more and more classroom teachers, grade level teachers, that have students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds,” McCobb said. “It’s important they understand some of the strategies for teaching those students… and how to communicate with their parents,”

Helping core academic teachers understand the learning differences of non-native English speakers is one of the roles of Shaw and colleague Carol Grau, who works at Allen Brook School, Williston Central School, and Shelburne Community School.

“The teacher should not feel that they’re not doing the right job with these students,” said Grau. Nor should the children feel the stress accompanied by insufficient support, she continued. “They should never feel left behind.”

The federal government, in its No Child Left Behind legislation, expects all English learners to become “proficient.” While there is not yet clarity on how proficiency is defined, there are clues. Grau said the law dictates that these students be included in federal assessment results after only one year in the U.S. In October, said Grau, the state expected students who had been in the U.S. only a month to take the math portion of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) state assessment.

State educators recognized the need to assess English language learners in a way that supports English language instruction aligned with state academic standards. Last spring, the state switched to a new assessment tool that focuses on academic – rather than social – English language proficiency.

Social, or day-to-day, language requires a year or two to develop, according to McCobb. Academic language proficiency, on the other hand, “takes five to seven years,” McCobb said, “assuming that you’re enrolled in a language instructional program that’s helping you to develop those skills. And it can take longer than that.”

In the classroom, for example, a teacher may think an ELL student understands everything because the student is socially proficient; the student, however, is struggling with content vocabulary.

Williston resident Viktor Jagar experienced this in middle school. Born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jagar failed an in-class essay test.

“I knew absolutely everything,” Jagar said, explaining that verbally he could articulate the answers to the teacher. “It’s harder to word it on paper than to talk about it.”

Jagar, now a sophomore, said he still needs Shaw’s assistance after eight years in Vermont. He said Serbo-Croatian is the dominant language spoken in his home.

“Even now there are faults in my language,” said Jagar, a self-described “computer geek” who loves helping other students and teachers with technology.

“I’m not on that same level as everybody else is,” Jagar said. “For an English person or an American child, they’re on a level higher than me because they’ve lived here their whole life. I’ve been living here for just eight years now. It doesn’t match their 16 or 17 or 18 years that they have been living with their mom or their dad speaking English.”

Examples of the more challenging nuances for a non-native speaker were evident in a dictation exercise Shaw read to students last Friday morning. Students hunched over papers filling in missing words as Shaw read from a complete script.

Distinguishing weave from we’ve was difficult for the students, as was distinguishing again from egging (as in “egging on”). Is it close-range or clothes-range?

And then there are idioms, those peculiar expressions that don’t make sense grammatically, unless you’ve always known them.

If you set off to learn a new language, saddledwith the responsibility of learning science and history in that new language, how might your story unfold?

The ELL students at CVU will tell you that “Johanna,” as they call Shaw, is important to their story.

Lumumba, who’s balancing AP chemistry, physics and pre-calculus with applied English and working 18 to 24 hours a week, summarized: “She helps us a lot.”