ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — It is approaching noon at Coleman Elementary School and the hallways are buzzing with anticipation in several directions.
Outside the front entrance, a limousine pulls up to take a bunch of students to a pizza lunch, their reward for collecting the most money in a school fundraiser.
In the hallway inside, children are lined up to go to the lunchroom. As they stand, one behind the other, it is hard for any of them to be still because theirs is a world of wonderment and wiggles.
They come from different backgrounds, with skin colors of white and brown and olive. Some speak fluid English. For others, their most effective language is a smile, a frown or a look in their eye that is telling.
Together, they are a mosaic of what is happening throughout the St. Joseph school system and they represent the single biggest challenge the city of St. Joseph faced when a Triumph Foods hog-processing plant opened 10 years ago.
Triumph has been held out as a model for what a proposed Prestage hog-processing plant might be like if built in Mason City.
MASON CITY — About 100 protesters walk in downtown Mason City Sunday in opposition to the pr…
Hundreds of new students were thrust into the St. Joe school system, many of whom did not speak English. Making the challenge even more daunting was what they did speak: more than 20 languages and dialects.
“They all have one basic need from us. They are in school so they can learn and it is our job to teach them,” said Joey Austin, director of public information for the school district.
In 2005 there were 90 students in the district’s ELL (English language learning) program. In 2006, after the Triumph plant opened, there were 243. Today there are 652.
The task of meeting that challenge was and is the responsibility of Gena Villegas, coordinator for the school district's English Speakers of Other Languages program.
“They come in with different cultures. We have to help them understand our culture, to learn simple things like how to act in school, what homework is, how to interact,” said Villegas. “This year we have 28 languages spoken in the high school alone."
Austin said the constant challenges are keeping up with staff needs, student needs and parents’ needs.
“It was a learning curve to begin with and it still is,” she said.
Villegas said foreign language teachers and tutors were enlisted to help get the program started while other teachers were being trained as ELL-certified teachers.
The state of Missouri helped pay for some of the training. Austin said the local School Board has been supportive and the program has developed partnerships with businesses throughout the city.
Social agencies have also helped out, she said. The University of Missouri Extension Center helped put together a coalition of agencies whose members meet once a month to coordinate services for immigrant families.
Villegas said it is important to try to get students integrated into school programs.
“Our goal is to start them in summer school so they can become familiar with the school they’re going to be in and hopefully relieve some of the anxiety before the school year starts,” she said.
The school district also provides support services for teachers and staff who are working with students from so many different countries, speaking so many different languages.
“We follow the example of the students,” said Austin. “It can either be an opportunity or a stumbling block.”
The ELL staff that started with tutors and a few foreign language teachers 10 years ago now has a staff of 27 — 12 teachers, seven tutors, three paraprofessionals, two migrant advocates, one assessor and one translator/interpreter, as well as Villegas, the director.
The district has three high schools, four middle schools and 16 elementary schools serving a student enrollment of 11,436.
Villegas said the best resource to get a program like this started is a team of administrators and professionals to help with organization and planning.
“You have to consider zoning — where are we going to put the students; establishment of a newcomer center — a hub where all records are kept as well as information on bilingual services; and a unified registration process,” she said.
“You have to make sure the registration forms include state-approved questions to identify English learners. The program coordinator must be knowledgeable about state guidelines for ELL programs and testing; and you must hire ELL-certified teachers or provide incentives for teachers to get certified,” said Villegas.
“And you have to love the kids,” she said, “and we do.”
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