April 15, 2017
By Nancy Lavin and Brandi Bottalico
Speaking Spanish is not part of John Bodnar’s job description.
But Bodnar, who heads the health and physical education department at Frederick High School, has picked up a few key phrases to communicate with Spanish-speaking students in his classes.
“Tiempo terminado” is how he calls a timeout in a game. He says “aquí” to gather the group, or tell them to go outside.
He greets them with “Buenos días.”
“They appreciate that, when I try to learn their phrases and greetings,” he said.
Bodnar has worked for Frederick County Public Schools for more than 20 years. Recently, he noticed a spike in the number of non-native English speakers in the school system. He welcomes the diversifying student population, but it comes with a new set of challenges, he said.
“Some of these kids are not only not fluent in English, they are not fluent in their own language,” he said.
They also might be unfamiliar with technology, which makes it hard when he gives assignments that require students to use the school’s Chromebook laptops.
He recalled a student in his class last semester who couldn’t log on to her laptop. The reason, he discovered, was not the device.
“She didn’t know the shift key was how to make a capital letter,” he explained.
The district’s English Language Learning and International Office oversees services for non-English-speaking students: English language proficiency placement tests, interpreter services and curriculum.
Supervisor Larry Steinly said the number of non-English-speaking students increased in his 10 years with the office.
“Frederick County is undergoing a gradual change demographically,” he said.
As of March, 2,351 students were enrolled in the school system’s English Language Learners program, a 14 percent increase from the ELL student population at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. There were 2,061 ELL students enrolled at the start of the year, according to Steinly.
The current and starting numbers of ELL students are higher than the numbers for 2015-16. The district began that year with 1,807 ELL students. The ELL student population reached 2,300 by the end of the year, according to Steinly.
About 77 percent of the current population of ELL students are Spanish speakers. Overall, 14 percent of students in the district are of Hispanic or Latino descent, Steinly said.
When students who don’t speak English as their native language enroll in the school system, the district tests their English proficiency. Based upon their score on a test, the district recommends whether to receive English language support services or not. The family can choose for their child to opt out.
Some of the four staff members in the International Office, where students take the test and enroll, are bilingual in English and Spanish. If a student speaks a different language, the school use a system called Language Line from AT&T, an on-demand interpreter who will teleconference with the school system when needed for any language.
Steinly said many students coming to Frederick County from some Central American countries have experienced trauma. Other challenges to educate students from other countries include interrupted or limited formal schooling, multiple school transfers and language barriers.
He said that with the increase in the number of students in the program, more positions have been added in his office over the years.
The Accelerating Achievement and Equity Department, which will include the English Language Learning office this upcoming school year, requested to add 13 full-time positions to respond to the significant increase of students in the English Language Learners program.
“Growth is always a challenge, especially during difficult economic times,” Steinly said. “Frederick County Public Schools, they really do their best to educate all students. Our mission is to teach them English and to make sure that all our children in the county get a good education.”
Over the past two years, more than 700 students completed the English language learning program. A majority of the non-English-speaking students, 73 percent, are in elementary schools and 27 percent are in secondary schools, Steinly said.
“Our goal is to have children learn the English language as quickly as possible,” he said.
The student perspective
Frederick High School has the second highest number of English Language Learners in the district, based on enrollment numbers at the start of the academic year.
Among them is Melkis Reyes, who moved to Frederick from El Salvador six months ago to live with his sister and her son. Melkis didn’t know any English when he started at Frederick High in September.
Six months later, he has improved. But asked how to spell his name during an interview with a News-Post reporter Thursday, he offered a shy smile, turning to his English-speaking nephew for help.
An interpreter with the Asian American Center of Frederick, an immigrant services organization, translated for Melkis for the rest of the interview. Melkis is taking English classes at the center.
During his first days at Frederick High, he was nervous, he admitted. But his nerves were quickly assuaged when he found himself surrounded by mostly Spanish-speaking classmates and a bilingual teacher.
He recently started taking a health class, taught by Bodnar.
Melkis didn’t have much to say on the class so far — he’s only been taking the class for a week. But he already noticed the class’ reliance on computers. And sometimes Bodnar uses a word he doesn’t understand.
He’s not afraid to ask his teacher the meaning. It’s easier to ask one of his Spanish-speaking peers, though.
His nephew, Brian Reyes, is a first-grader at Hillcrest Elementary School. Brian also speaks Spanish with his friends at school, but not because he doesn’t know English. Brian was born in Frederick, and speaks English fluently.
When he speaks Spanish with his classmates, it’s because they want to talk without their English-speaking teachers knowing, Brian explained with a giggle.
Hillcrest Elementary’s 503 English Language Learners make up more than 50 percent of its student population. Students speak 17 different languages at Hillcrest.
Brian spends most of the school day talking, writing and reading in English. When he goes home, he switches to Spanish to communicate with his mother, Sonia Reyes, who also speaks little English, and with Melkis.
“You kind of have to switch your mind from English to Spanish,” Brian explained.
He doesn’t mind, he said. But sometimes, Brian speaks in English at home, or in Spanish to a teacher at school.
“I just get mixed up,” he said.
His mom, who was also interviewed through an interpreter, said she’s never had a problem communicating with the school.
Any written notices she receives are always in both languages. If she wants to speak with a teacher, she uses one of the school-provided interpreters.
The instructor perspective
Hillcrest co-principals Kimberly Seiss and Karl Williams, in an interview in March, emphasized their efforts to make non-English students and their families feel welcome.
When those non-native-English-speaking families enroll their children in school, a warm attitude can make all the difference, especially for parents who can’t understand even simple processes like the necessary paperwork, the principals said.
Flexibility also proves key. It’s the “middle name” of the English Language Learners department at Frederick High, according to Consuelo Fuenzalida, the department chairwoman.
The number of students enrolled in the program is constantly fluctuating, even daily, she said. Her department has added three teachers this academic year to keep up with the influx of new students, about 100 since September, according to Steinly.
“There’s no timeline for when they come,” she said. “They don’t think about the academic calendar when they’re crossing the border, or being detained by [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement].”
A number of students enrolled right before President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, Steinly said. And in February, 36 ELL students enrolled, 16 of them at Frederick High School.
Start date isn’t the only variable at play among the ELL population. The students are grouped based on test scores, not age, so a single class might include 14- to 19-year-olds.
And while Spanish is the dominant language, it’s not the only one. Fuenzalida has one student now who speaks Romanian, a language she didn’t think any of the district’s faculty knew.
Education levels also vary widely.
Some students experienced a prolonged break without formal education — up to several years in some cases. Those students might need help with basic school protocol: coming to class on time or when to complete homework.
She recalled one student who asked for her permission to be absent the following day.
“I was like, ‘You don’t ask me to not be here,’” she said.
Fuenzalida also described her role as one of general support.
Fuenzalida, a native of Chile, empathized with the culture shock her students experience. She named missing fruit from home as one example of her transition when she moved to the U.S. Another was realizing that Americans leave more space between them when speaking to each other.
“Latinas, we don’t do personal space,” she said with a laugh.
Fuenzalida’s classes are comprised solely of non-English speakers. Others, like physical education, health and technology, are not.
Robin Brawner, a teacher in Frederick High’s Career & Technical Education department, has found these “mixed” classes more difficult to teach. Brawner is married to Bodnar.
In her Foundations of Technology class, for example, she often spends the first week teaching the ELL students how to log on to the system. The English speakers in her class don’t need as much time to assimilate, and become bored or distracted, she said.
Even at a slower pace, the ELL students can miss out, especially if they don’t understand the engineering terms used in the class.
“A straight class is better than a blended,” Bodnar agreed.
But there is a benefit to bringing the two groups together, he added.
Brawner said she makes it a point to assign group projects to bring together non-English and English speakers. They may be hesitant at first, but eventually they get to know each other.
Fuenzalida also highlighted interactions between the two groups of students in the tutoring class she supervises.
“It’s amazing how they help each other,” she said. “They may not share a language, but they’re all teenagers. They’re all in high school.”
They also share the same end goals: to graduate, to move on in their education and in their adult lives.
“It’s a harder path in life for them, but it’s not impossible,” she said. “To see where they come from, and where they end up being. ... It’s amazing.”
Source: The Frederick News-Post