Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2020

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Distance learning presents new challenges for CCSD’s English Language Learner Division

Suzanne Romero

Wade Vandervort

Suzanne Romero teaches English Language Learners at Tom Williams Elementary in North Las Vegas.

Suzanne Romero, a first-grade teacher at Tom Williams Elementary School in North Las Vegas, says many of her students have immigrants parents who aren’t familiar with the American school system. They get confused by some of the notifications that are sent home from the school, which could lead to their children falling behind.

“A lot of parents just ignore anything that comes from the school district,” she says. “They rely on the teacher to be able to show them and explain everything to them.”

CCSD has students enrolled from approximately 160 different countries, speaking more than 70 different languages, including about 29,000 students whose first language is Spanish, says Ignacio Ruiz, the CCSD assistant superintendent of the English Language Learner Division. In total, about 16% of the District’s 320,000 students are English Language Learners, he says.

Romero, whose parents weren’t English speakers, can relate. She says her first priority in helping students is making sure their families know she’s invested in their education. Romero says “being able to know deeply about them, their culture [and] their history” helps her incorporate her students’ experience into her curriculum.

“They can see themselves in the lessons, so they actually care about it,” she says. “A lot of curriculum and books are written not taking in mind there are students from different parts of the world.”

Approximately 400 bilingual teachers are currently employed by Clark County School District. There’s are no requirements as to how many bilingual teachers need to be stationed per school. “There’s a misconception that in order to support English learners, you need to be bilingual,” Ruiz says.

Rather, educators aim to provide instructional support for students that provides entry points to grade-level content.

When students enroll, their families complete a home language survey. If students have had language experience other than English, they’re screened to determine their level of English language proficiency.

If they’re defined as an English Language Learner, they receive an annual test administered each spring to measure their progress, until they meet proficiency criteria. After that, the school district monitors their progress for four years.

The goal is to integrate language instruction and content into lesson plans for all subjects.

Vanessa Mari, assistant professor of Teaching English as a Second Language in the School of Education at Nevada State College, says educators should focus on the positive things a student bring into the classroom.

“Instead of thinking, ‘My student will struggle because they don’t know English,’ we can start framing this as, ‘My student knows another language, and this will support their English skills,’” she says.

Linking readings or videos in a student’s native language that support instruction can help leverage both languages, Mari says. Those can also be resources for parents eager to assist their child.

UNLV professor Alain Bengochea, an expert in emergent bilingualism, says research shows that dual language educational programs that integrate a student’s home language result in greater achievement than English-only programs.

Bengochea says that in 2019, approximately 15% of English language learners in Nevada demonstrated proficiency in math and English language arts, in contrast with non-ELL peers who demonstrated 42% and 55% proficiency in math and language arts, respectively, “thereby showing a greater need for programs that are responsive to the linguistic, cultural and academic strengths of this population.”

“We need to do more to improve learning conditions for these students,” Bengochea says.

During a traditional school year, a team of English language learning specialists provide “boots on the ground” at every school, Ruiz says. But with CCSD learning now being conducted remotely due to the pandemic, the district is supporting language distance learners through virtual reading centers, Google classroom forums and virtual parent workshops.

Additionally, information sent from CCSD to second-language learning families is distributed in Spanish. Officials also post messages on social media in Spanish, and bilingual Superintendent Jesus Jara frequently posts videos in which he speaks in Spanish.

Maria Marinch, a communications officer with CCSD, recently told the school board that the district has increased outreach in multiple languages, particularly in Spanish.

It’s important to identify students who are struggling because of the language barrier, but housing and food insecurity are also important issues, says Cecia Alvarado of Mi Familia Vota, a group that unites immigrant and allied communities to promote social and economic justice through voting. The group canvases neighborhoods with heavy immigrant populations to access their educational needs, among other concerns.

The CCSD graduation rate for English Language Learners in 2019 was 77%.

“Education is the American dream for any immigrant,” Alvarado says. “It’s deep in our culture. This is our gateway to escape poverty and have a better life. I know the parents will do anything they can to make sure they [their children] have the opportunity to go back to school.”