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Dissecting Eagle County’s langugage barrier

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Preston Utley/Daily file photoBerry Creek eighth grader Allan Hernandez looks at a dictionary during a dual-language class, one of the ways the school district is focusing instruction on students who are increasingly diverse.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” As more Spanish-speaking families move into Eagle County, educators are changing their approach to reading and writing to reach the large number of students learning a new language.

There are about 2,330 students in Eagle County school district learning English as a second language this year ” a number that’s been steadily going up for the past 10 years. Some of these students know quite a bit of English, others hardly any. Most of these students speak Spanish in their homes with their families.

Generally, those students learning English as a second language lag behind their English-speaking peers on standardized tests, a disparity educators call the “achievement gap.”



The tricky thing is that many of these students can speak English quite well, but they have trouble with what teachers call “academic English” ” tasks such as reading a book and writing a summary.

Handling these changing demographics has been a big challenge for teachers. The most systemic, districtwide change we’ve seen over the years is a more intense focus on customizing lessons for individual students, depending on how much English they know.



Other schools with dramatically high numbers of Spanish-speaking students, like Avon Elementary and Edwards Elementary, are taking much bolder actions, such as holding school on Saturdays, extending the school year and hiring parent liaisons to reach out to Spanish-speaking families.

“Second-language learners come in to school not only having to meet the curriculum standards and benchmarks, but also having to learn a new language and assimilate to a new culture,” said Jessica Martinez, English Language Acquisition director for the school district.

One of the more innovative programs in the school district is the “dual language” program, which began at Edwards Elementary seven years ago as a way to turn the large number of Spanish-speaking students at the school into an asset. Since then, the program has grown to Avon Elementary, Edwards Elementary, Berry Creek Middle School and, just this year, Battle Mountain High School.



Half of the students in dual-language classes grew up speaking Spanish in their homes, and the other half speaking English, and both these groups will learn the other’s language.

Teachers say this arrangement puts all the students on a level playing field.

“The dual-language program creates a culture of respect for both languages, English and Spanish alike, because all students in the school are learning a new language and helping each other to be successful in both languages,” Martinez said.

Aside from individual attention, students learning a new language seem to need extra time, more than anything.

At Edwards Elementary this past year, teachers began incorporating more reading practice into science, math and social studies classes where reading generally isn’t the focus. The school made a lot of changes to its schedule last year to give kids who needed help with reading about 30 extra minutes a day of practice.

“We know the most important thing we can teach a student is how to read,” Principal Heidi Hanssen said. “Sometimes, they have to miss other things for reading instruction, but we have to create readers early on. It’s the foundation for everything else.”

Avon Elementary is trying quite a few new things to give students more time with teachers. This past year they began a Saturday school for about 38 students in third through fifth grade who needed help with reading and language.

Students performing below grade level also began school about 15 days early this year, and they’ll have another 10 days or so tacked on at the end of year.

These extra days are official, mandatory school days where attendance will be taken, and parents will be held accountable to make sure their kids are at school.

“Second-language learners need more time, and that’s what they have here,” Rewold-Thuon said.

Teachers say parental involvement is integral to a child’s success in school, and when a teacher can make connections with parents, it can make a big difference.

Both Avon and Edwards elementaries have Spanish-speaking parent liaisons to help communicate with families who know little or no English. Most school events are held in both English and Spanish.

Battle Mountain High School has started its second year for the Hispanic Mentors Program, in which college-bound Hispanic role models at the school help tutor their peers, who may be struggling in class. The mentors also help the school communicate with families of these students, who often speak only Spanish in their homes.

It also helps when parents are trying to learn English themselves. Many local parents are learning English through Colorado Mountain College or the Literacy Project, and if students watch their parents work hard at learning English, they’ll probably work hard as well, teachers say.

“If children see their parents reading, or if their parents read with them on a regular basis, it creates a culture for learning that will stay with the child throughout his or her life,” Martinez said.

Really, it doesn’t matter what language parents read with the students at home. The fundamentals of reading are the same in both Spanish and English. A child who read well in Spanish will have a much better chance of reading well in English, Martinez said.

“Reading is reading, it doesn’t matter the language,” Martinez said. “Parents who share books and the love of reading with their child in the language spoken at home set their child up for success in school and create a love of learning.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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