SMITHFIELD — While visiting a church in Alamance County recently, a friend told Kim Wellons she was concerned that her granddaughter had been put in a dual language kindergarten class, where half of her lessons are Spanish and the other half are in English.
Wellons, chief academic officer with Johnston County Schools, reassured her friend. She was the principal at Selma Elementary when they started their dual language program, “Splash,” and it’s in the middle of its fourth successful year.
“I asked her, ‘Why are you worried?’ By Christmas, she was just excited about what her granddaughter is learning – to speak Spanish,” Wellons said.
In North Carolina, the Hispanic population has increased 8.4 percent between 2000 and 2010. In Wake County, that number has increased by 9.8 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Latinos and Hispanics now make up 18.2 percent of the Johnston County Schools population of 33,000 children, outnumbering who make up 16.3 percent of the student body. The third largest minority group is American Indians.
According to Wellons and Ana Sanders, director of migrant education and English as a Second Language in Johnston County, the influx of new-immigrant Hispanics has mostly leveled off, as it has nationwide.
“Many are already here and learning English, not migrating,” Sanders said.
The jolt in numbers, Sanders explained, is from children born inside the county or who move in from other states. Regardless, English as a Second Language is still essential for Latino students who never spoke English prior to kindergarten, and for those coming from other countries – like China and African nations.
Johnston County has 3,000 English language learners representing 30 languages.
Long an agricultural community, Johnston County has had a program for migrant farm workers’ children for years.
While that program is still active under Sanders’ leadership, it’s no longer the crux of ESL programs.
“We are focusing more for Latinos on kindergarten, who spoke Spanish at home. They excel in our program very quickly. Others are moving in, from a mixture of other nations in South America, Central America and Mexico,” Sanders said.
Paola Rodriguez, student body president at Clayton High School, moved to Texas from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico when she was 5.
Having spoken only Spanish prior to kindergarten, by the time she came to Johnston County in second grade, she was reading the “Boxcar Children” series and speaking English proficiently.
“It’s amazing. They learn really fast; the kids are very adaptable,” Wellons said.
It would be hard to say Rodriguez was fluent in English when she came to Clayton, but she didn’t need ESL. Achieving fluency in a second language is an ongoing problem.
“Latino students historically do well in math. Reading is a little harder. They speak (English), but the vocabulary isn’t there,” Wellons said.
The schools are improving teaching strategies, especially as new standards of study come down from the state and federal government, stressing differentiation in teaching to accommodate all kinds of learners.
“Differentiation is a big focus on the curriculum,” Wellons said. “We have high expectations for all students, but you have to meet them where they are. They need to feel success and continue to work toward higher levels.”
At Clayton Middle School, ESL teacher Martiza Rosado beams as she talks about seventh-grader Victor Ruez-Rodriguez. He came to West Clayton Elementary from Mexico in the fifth grade, with no English and a limited ability to read and write in Spanish.
“I wouldn’t speak English without my teachers. And my friends help me. I study cards, I read, I talk on Facebook with them,” Ruez-Rodriguez said in English, barely struggling to find words once he’s comfortable with whom he’s talking.
Rosado uses iPads from an ESL-assisting technology grant. Students use them to look up and sound out words, play learning games and blog.
Sanders says ESL programming has helped all children by engaging them in different learning strategies.
Instead of glossing over the vocabulary necessary to learn a mathematical concept, teachers are defining the vocabulary first, and using objects and pictures to drive the meanings home.
“We focus on vocabulary period; slowing down and teaching the context. A multisensory approach always helps. It makes it come together for a lot of kids,” Wellons said.
Every teacher becomes a language teacher, Sanders said.
And the students’ native languages are rarely used. Spanish is spoken only in the dual language program.
Closing the gap
Despite ongoing efforts to include the parents of ESL students and improvements in teaching strategies, there’s still an achievement gap between Latinos and native English speakers.
“We are still working on the graduation rate. We got better last year,” Wellons said.
The school district isn’t tracking higher education paths as much, but they are seeing more Latinos and ESL students in the AVID program, (Advancement Via Individual Determination) a kindergarten through 12th grade college-readiness program to improve learning and professional development nationwide.
“Kids are going to community colleges, four-year colleges,” Wellons said of both first-generation college students and ESL students.
Nevertheless, reading scores can still improve, as can graduation rates and the number of former ESL students in advanced placement classes.
“There’s need for improvement everywhere,” Sanders said. “Some students become proficient very quickly, but there will still be a gap. We’re not happy until we can close the gap entirely.”
See the Feb. 12 News & Observer for the previous story in this series, “Latino learning.”