If they sound strangely familiar, they should. They’re just a handful of the 140 languages spoken in the Kent School District.
With a large immigrant population, many of them refugees from conflict areas, it’s not surprising that bilingual education presents a unique and unconventional challenge for Kent schools.
Beyond the additional funds needed to support these students, the district incorporates paraeducators, technology, adjusted curriculum and teacher development to support them as they work to learn a new language. But at the heart of the program are ELL teachers, whose job it is to provide two-hour block instruction on English each day.
When English language learners (ELL) join the district, they take a test to determine their level of English ability. And based on that ability – from level one to level four – they are enrolled in classes to accelerate the learning process.
While the classes are a step in the right direction for students, they still face many challenges, especially those that come in later grades.
Instead of having a single-mandated curriculum for schools, the district allows each school to handle multilingual education in its own way based on the number of students a given school has. In schools, like Kentridge High School, there can be as many as 70 ELL students. More than 300 students call highly-diverse Kent-Meridian home.
The earlier students enter the district, the easier it is to learn English. On the other hand, the closer they start to finishing the 12th grade, the harder they have to work to catch up on missed lessons.
“They’re in a very tough spot to learn so much so quickly,” said Rosa Villareal, head of the district’s ELL program.
While students in elementary school, like those at Scenic Hill, have up to 12 years to learn English – in addition to whatever other native languages they speak – a refugee student entering Kent-Meridian will have only four years to master social and academic languages, said Kentridge ELL teacher David Sarino.
They’ll have to learn phrases like “how was your weekend?” as well as “analyze the major themes in Romeo and Juliette,” Sarino said.
“The frustrating thing is that you know that many of them have the academic skills to be successful, but they don’t all have the tools to overcome that language barrier,” Sarino said.
To help students, the district often brings in classroom help or looks for other ways to assist teachers with multilingual students. But sometimes more is needed.
Kent-Meridian teacher Erik Seihl and other ELL educators say that one of the largest problems for teaching multilingual students are age appropriate materials.
Many of the books and guides the high schools use have comical pictures suited for younger ages, which make it hard for students to take the ideas seriously.
To counter this, Seihl teaches students real life examples. During a class, he used Iceland as a way to teach his students phrases like “quality of life,” “island” and “indoor heating.” The goal, he said, is to make the learning experience immersive and compelling for the students by teaching them about subjects that they would be interested in discussing with other students.
“Kids learn language the fastest when they perceive a need to communicate with others,” Seihl said.
While it’s not easy to learn the ins and outs of a language in a short-time frame, Sarino said that the difficulties often bring small classes together.
“Even though they’re from all these different backgrounds, they form these ELL families so to speak,” he said. “Even though they’re from different backgrounds and countries, they kind of adopt each other and look out for each other.”
Despite the trials and barriers that come with teaching, such as a multi-ethnic area, the ELL teachers remain optimistic and dedicated to their students.
It’s not easy to integrate a learning program for more than 100 different languages and make that program accessible to a variety of English-speaking levels, but teachers do the best they can.
Seeing their students succeed is motivation enough for teachers.
“A huge reward is for me to see these kids succeed in our school system,” Seihl said.