Non-English Speaking Students & What That Means for Our Schools

There are a number of things to focus on in regards to the education system here in St. Cloud.  I would guess that the topic that gets most people up in arms is unsurprisingly our non-English speaking students.  I’m not sure if I just have the sort of face that makes people think they can say anything to me or if I’m just surrounded by people who say stupid sh*t. Could go either way, I suppose.  My favorite to date has been:

“If they can’t speaka the english then they should goes someplace else.”

Yep. From the mouth of a real, live, native, English speaking ‘Merican. Just mull on that for a minute.

Now on the flip side, when I put on my empathy hat I can understand the concern behind these sorts of statements that would be better worded:

How is this affecting my child?
What does this mean for our schools & teachers?

To add insult to injury, the school ratings were published by St Cloud Times this last October and did little to help alleviate misconceptions. While the story was accurate in its facts, it served to only paint a small picture of what is really happening in our more diverse schools. Without sharing the larger picture many in our community have just jumped to stereotypes and derogatory thinking. Guess what, though? It’s not what you think. In some aspects, these schools are doing better than all the rest.

I spoke with Tyson Zitzow, School Psychologist for Talahi Elementary and the District Cultural Evaluation Consultant, to get a fuller picture of just how this issue is affecting our schools. First, a little background.

TalahiTalahi pulled in the MN Dept of Ed’s lowest ranking as a Priority School meaning that according to testing measures it fell in the lowest 5% of schools receiving Title I funding. Madison Elementary raked as a Focus School meaning if fell in the lowest 10%. So what is contributing to this and what does it mean? Let’s take a look at Talahi a bit closer. An astonishing 66% of their enrollment is minority students.  There is a 13:1 student to teacher ratio which is a smaller class size than the MN average, however. 91% of the students qualify for free lunch (the state average is 32%). English Language Learners (or EL kids) compromise about 35% of students enrolled and Special Education kids making up another 18%This is a much different demographic than we see in the surrounding schools in our area. How does this growing population of EL kids affect these numbers?

The first thing Tyson shared is that despite popular opinion, this is more than just a Somali issue. There are over 40 different languages spoken in St Cloud. MORE THAN FOURTY! Wow. Additionally, besides simple language barriers there are EL kids struggling with learning disabilities that much harder to identify because of their inability to understand English, there is the issue of where some of these kids are coming from (such as refugee camps where they may have suffered from malnutrition, disease, and lack of any previous forms of education not to mention the simple culture shock of it all. They may be going from a hut with no running water or electricity to a brightly lit computer/classroom), various socioeconomic factors that limit things such as early exposure to language/reading, uneducated and illiterate parent/caregivers, etc. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

From there, one must understand what it takes for a child to learn english. The length of time to learn a second language is similar to any child learning language from infancy.  On average, it takes 2-3 years to learn basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) such as greetings, asking for directions to the restroom, answering basic questions. Then add onto that an additional 5-7 years to acquire cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) which is essential to navigating textbooks, more in depth conversation and to competitively achieve in the classroom. So in case math isn’t your forte that means that at a minimum we are talking about 7-10 years to prepare these children to reach a level of english proficiency to complete meaningfully in the typical annual yearly progress testing (AYP).  

What kids receive, however, is a different manner. All new to country students are given an english proficiency test and tested yearly (at minimum). Those scoring low will meet with an EL Teacher for 50-75% of their day for the first year dependent upon grade. During this time children are working primarily on language development and less of a focus academics as vocabulary is necessary for comprehension of content. After this year, EL kids slowly transition out to mainstream classes. However, as Zitzow states, this is not enough and he points out that, despite the language barrier, testing their academic knowledge starts shortly after their enrollment.

When we have our students here thrown into the school and we don’t teach in Somali or any language other than English (ideally we want to emerse in both languages)… to be expected to take tests, to just pick up and to succeed, is difficult. And that’s just the language piece. You’d be really hard pressed to find a culture more different than what most [EL kids] are coming from. Learning and adopting parts of a new culture is a daunting task in and of itself.   -Zitzow

Another thing that factors into the low test scores is the fact that over 30% of the students are absent 10% or more of the total instructional days along with a mobility rate greater than 25% -meaning 25% of  students have been or will be at another school during each school year. In other words, only 3 of 4 students are enrolled at Talahi the entire school year. Research has linked mobility between schools one of the greatest impacts on student achievement.

Knowing this it may be safe to say that with constant turnover of children who are managing to become more proficient at English leaving the elementary school only to be replaced by new to country immigrants & refugees Talahi’s scores will likely be lower than less diverse elementary schools year after year.  As Zitzow notes, despite lots of tests throughout the school year to assess growth and levels by the school staff, the state is concerned only with academic proficiency. This overlooks the vast growth within the individual students’ skills and the progress they have made.

So we are back to low scores. Test scores are only a very small piece of the educational system puzzle, as any educator knows. The part that Zitzow states that people can’t see and that isn’t being measured are the affects that such a diverse population of students has on one another.

Talahi is such a great school and gets a bad rap. When you walk in there the diversity is amazing. White really is the minority there… By 5th grade when they’re giving speeches you can really see this amazing lens these kids are coming with. They truly are accepting…To have them recieve their education in this type of environment is amazing because they get to see all the different cultures and all the different ways children can learn. Right, wrong or otherwise, it doesn’t matter. We’re in this together.-Zitzow

As far as the EL kids go, Zitzow states:

The research clearly shows that if we give them time they are going to get there.

As for the school and the teachers:

In education, we tend to give students a label and put them into “silos.” A traditional family farm, so to speak. You are special ed, so you get this. You are Title I, so you get this. You are EL, so you get this. However, what research has taught us over the years is that compartmentalizing students and prescribing an intervention based on their label is not good for kids- rather, we need to level the family farm and meet them where they are at based on their need, not level.

The fortunate thing about diverse schools is that it causes teachers to differentiate their instruction according to need, not label. It is law that every student receives access to grade level standards- however, this means an EL student and a non-EL student may be at different levels depending on the skill.

The varying needs of a classroom forces teachers to minimize whole group instruction and instead provide more small group, individual, and station-type of instruction. In a nutshell, the opposite is the case- the presence of varying needs (including EL students) in a classroom has caused teachers to abandon the “one-size fits all” approach because it doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students. However, the silver lining is that differentiated instruction with less whole-group instruction and more small-group and individual instruction at a child’s skill level is better for ALL students, including those “at grade-level” or above grade level. The traditional one size fits all approach certainly didn’t reach the higher achieving students, but now the presence of more needs the higher achieving students are able to get their needs met and also increase the breadth and depth of content in cases. The needs of our diverse student population has caused teachers to change the way they instruct that has resulted in better instruction for all students through differentiation.

This is good news for parents concerned about their child’s education. But is the message getting out? Zitzow notes that Superintendent Willie Jett II has been very supportive and vocal. Also, when parents voice concern about sending their child to Talahi or Madison staff discuss with them what is really behind the scores that the schools are putting up and the positive culture among the students there. Because of the relationships that students are able to build with each other and their teachers they don’t tend to see the disharmony that some of the high schools have where students are constantly changing classrooms. More often than not most parents elect to enroll their children.

It’s really a matter of understanding. Most parents have enough information to be dangerous but not a full picture of what the scores really mean.  -Zitzow

The even better news is that as some of the children start to develop friendships with the EL kids, and even some of the black and brown kids of other cultures, you start to see a shift in the attitudes of the parents. Zitzow believes that these parents having the opportunity to meet a person of another culture lessens the disconnect from those cultures and creates a greater tolerance and understanding.

So while some may see these as “Failing Schools” it may be fair to say that Talahi and Madison may be doing a better job of raising kids (& growing parents) for a more respectful and diverse community.

[bctt tweet=”Right, wrong or otherwise, it doesn’t matter. We’re in this together. #unitecloud”]

 *This article is a guest post, written by a local member of our community.