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Teaching Las Vegas’ non-English-speaking students is crucial — but it’s not easy



LILIANA TREJO VANEGAS is excited about her future. Having completed a well-balanced arts and academic program at a prestigious high school, Las Vegas Academy, she’s prepared for a college career she says she’ll start in a couple years. In the meantime, she’s getting U.S. citizenship and planning a trip to Mexico, where she’ll reconnect with family while working on a photographic project about her home country.

Vanegas represents an ideal in English Language Learning (commonly referred to as ELL), having come to the United States in third grade with her mom and sister to join their father, who was already established and working in Las Vegas. Although she spoke no English when she arrived, Vanegas speaks it flawlessly now — no Spanish accent whatsoever.

Experts fear that success stories like hers may become rarer if the Clark County School District doesn’t up its investment in ELL. Like so many parts of the district, the ELL program has been cut back due to budget reductions initiated at the state level. Although the department’s well-intentioned staff is doing everything it can to pick up the slack, there are simply too few resources to effectively serve the 92,000-plus students speaking 115 languages other than English, nearly 90 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Why bother with ELL to begin with? After all, some people think it’s a good place to make necessary cutbacks.

Well, for starters, it’s the law, says Brian Daw, an ELL coordinator for CCSD, noting a string of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that have made it clear everyone (not just legal citizens) is entitled to a public education.

“I think a lot of people misunderstand that,” Daw says. “They think we shouldn’t have the burden of educating them. … You have to serve every person who shows up at your school, regardless on whether they speak the language.”

The bias against ELL is partly due to the way English speakers perceive non-English speakers — as stupid, lazy or uncooperative. Daw says in most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The issue is complicated, especially in the case of Hispanics, adds Ruben Perez, an educational consultant for aha! Process who has been teaching and/or studying ELL in public education for nearly a quarter-century.

Perez points out that there are 23 countries where Spanish is the predominant language, and 20 of them are Third World countries. “There is also a tremendous amount of wealth in those countries, but people focus on the poverty,” Perez says, “which leads to unflattering stereotypes.”

For instance, it might surprise some people to learn that Vanegas’ father owned his own ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico. When the economy got too bad for him to support his family, he immigrated here, like so many others, in search of a better life. Within a short time, he learned English.

Negative assumptions can create a detrimental cycle that’s tough to break out of for English language learners, especially Hispanics, Perez says. Research indicates that when a non-native speaks English, a native speaker listening is more likely to react to the speaker as if he’s is unintelligent if he has a Spanish accent than if he has, say, a French accent. Being treated like he’s stupid every time he tries to talk will eventually teach a kid to just keep his mouth shut.

“The language can cause a lot of shame and resentment on both sides of the language fence,” Perez says.

Another pitfall is for non-English speaking parents to become dependent on their English-speaking children as translators, creating a situation in which the child has power over the parent — not a good situation, as any mom or dad knows.

Hispanic diversity also means that people from different Spanish-speaking cultures treat education, family and work differently. Families from some areas may be very involved in their kids’ education, while others may expect their kids to finish school quickly and get a job to contribute income to the household.

Often, parents of Hispanic children in the U.S. have no grasp of the norms here. For instance, they may be completely unaware that American parents participate in their kids’ school activities.

Then, of course, there’s the complex issue of individual learning styles. Vanegas says that she had a functional grasp of English by the end of third grade and was fluent by the end of fourth, but she was extremely social and motivated to talk to her classmates. She has seen many fellow native Hispanics over the years struggle in ways she didn’t.

Elizabeth Bash, an ELL-certified first-grade teacher at Rex Bell Elementary school notes this, too, can create prejudice against certain kids. She strongly cautions teachers and other adults from assuming that a child who learns a language quickly is smarter than another, who learns it more slowly.

“It takes five-seven years to learn a second language fluently, where you can think in it, converse in it, dream in it, read, write, speak, think, doing everything you need to do,” Bash says.

With that being the case, how can children who’ve been learning English a year or less be expected to pass standardized exams?

They shouldn’t be, Perez says. Current thinking on the best approach to ELL education is divided into several camps — with different factions espousing everything from bilingual instruction to full English-language immersion, each armed with studies that prove its method works best — but most experts agree children will not have sufficient language skills to perform well on standardized exams until after at least one year of ELL instruction and up to six years, depending on other factors, such as how much support they get and English they’re exposed to outside the classroom.

Perez advocates for an approach being tested in the Houston school district where he has worked. Non-native English speakers arriving there spend one year in ELL-focused welcome centers. After that year, they’re mainstreamed.

This approach not only teaches them the language, Perez says, but also helps deal with cultural issues. The ELL approach used in the welcome centers focuses on presentation skills — how to stand, hold a listener’s gaze, speak with confidence — and brings parents into the loop, teaching what their kids’ new school environment will be like and how they can help in language acquisition.

CCSD is a long, long way from having the money to build such a program. The district used to have ELL facilitators who administered language exams at schools, following and reporting on kids’ progress. Last year, those positions were eliminated due to budgetary constraints.

Still, the utopia Perez describes isn’t totally unlike the experience Vanegas had in her third-grade class at Ruby Thomas Elementary School. She recalls being put in a class with teacher Daniel Troffles, who spoke both English and Spanish and taught the class bilingually. She says some kids in the class didn’t speak Spanish, including a few with Hispanic parents, but it worked well, because everyone was acquiring a second language together.

Daw says there are eight dual-language schools in CCSD, where kids spend half the day learning in English and the other half in Spanish. Regardless of where a non-native speaker lands, though, Daw says they’re supposed to be given what’s called “sheltered instruction” during their first year. It may come in the form of block classes or a separate program, depending on how each school wants to implement it, but in any case, the district provides the tools to make specialized ELL instruction available.

“We do a High-Quality Sheltered Instruction program that emphasizes the components of ELL that are good instructional strategies,” Daw says. “Kids need more than just a word written on the board. It helps if there’s a picture, or interaction with fellow students, or realia — actual items being discussed. That helps enhance the context.”

All teachers receive training in Teaching English as a Second Language. On a voluntary basis, they may also enroll in programs like HQSI. It’s up to school administrators to decide how to utilize specially trained teachers. Bash’s career, for example, has taken her to sites where her advanced ELL training is in high demand. She says most of her students don’t speak English as their native language; Daw estimates the percentage across the board in CCSD is one-third.

Bash and other teachers say they have plenty of tools at their disposal, from special curricula to technology. One problem is, not everyone will use those tools. It’s much harder to integrate ELL into a fifth-grade curriculum, where the concepts being taught are more advanced, than in into a first-grade curriculum.

Daw and his colleagues are charged with the seemingly Herculean task of going to individual schools, offering them help based on their particular demographics and test results, and trying to make sure administrators and teachers are taking advantage of what’s available.

“I have schools in performance zone 7,” he says. “I know the principals very well, and they’re extremely committed to doing whatever they can. They pass (what we teach them) on to their staff, and I don’t see any resistance.”

Bash says she only wishes she had more time before the pressure of tests was exerted. “Because of government mandates, the [ELL] kids have to compete right alongside all the English-speaking students in the district, and they don’t have enough time to absorb the language first.”

The biggest barrier Daw sees to creating more cases like Vanegas is money. “There is so much need,” he says, “and so few resources.”

Yet as some politicians will be quick to point out, money alone won’t solve the problem.

“There’s always a political overlay to it,” Perez says. “The battle is going to be long and hard. If you’re putting politics before the well-being of the students, you’re going to fail.”