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The Allentown Morning Call

English As A Second Language Is First Step To Help For Many

Demand Growing As More ESL Students Enter Valley Schools

By Kirk Beldon Jackson and Garrett Therolf Of The Morning Call

April 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

When Christopher Marrero started 11th grade at Whitehall High School in September, he understood only about half of what his teachers were saying.

A new arrival from Puerto Rico, along with his mother, brother and sister, Marrero had studied English in the island's public schools since first grade.

But the classes there hadn't fully prepared him for an English-speaking environment in the states, making him a perfect candidate for the Whitehall-Coplay School District's 2-year-old English as a Second Language program.

Now, eight months into the school year, Marrero understands about 95 percent of the English he hears. He's succeeding academically, and ESL helped him get there.

Marrero's need for specialized instruction, however, underscores the growing pressure on school districts to provide ESL services. The number of public school students with limited English skills in the Lehigh Valley is at a high-water mark, and school districts across the area, both large and small, are struggling to gather the resources to hire more certified instructors and develop new curriculums.

City schools saw the surge in ESL students first. Now suburban districts such as Whitehall-Coplay, Salisbury and Parkland are feeling the pressure as families with children who need ESL instruction move in.

"The school's not quite ready," said Whitehall-Coplay ESL teacher Lori Yakubecek. "It's happening so fast."

ESL teachers don't help only Spanish-speaking students like Marrero.

"Some of our districts have 35 or more languages," said Heidi Faust, ESL facilitator for the Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit, which helps districts develop ESL instruction.

Languages range from Spanish to Vietnamese to Albanian to Russian to Punjabi.

In one year, the number of students with limited English proficiency in Lehigh and Northampton counties' schools increased by 34 percent, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Statewide that same year, the increase was only 18 percent.

Data on the number of ESL teachers in the state is incomplete. But teachers, administrators and others insist that supply has not kept pace with need -- a development that manifests itself daily in classrooms on a myriad of fronts. Regular teachers rely on their raw creativity when they face a language barrier with students if colleagues with specialized ESL training are unavailable.

Whitehall-Coplay fourth-grade teacher Luke Boltz, for example, sometimes uses pictures instead of words when working with ESL students.

"You have to be creative and innovative and do the best with what you have," he said.

The difficulty in finding ESL teachers starts with recruiting which, for Allentown School District ESL coordinator Jane Schreiber, is high pressure and year-round. Schreiber leaves her business card at almost every college, conference and ethnic festival she attends.

"I'm often interviewing [ESL] teachers right up to the time school starts in the fall, and often days after school actually starts," she said.

The very nature of the job is another hurdle. Teaching ESL is a daunting task requiring patience, compassion and meticulous, brick-by-brick hard work.

Unlike bilingual classes, teachers instruct by literally showing what words mean. Sometimes they use visual and sound aids. Sometimes they employ physical demonstrations: running in place to convey "running," pointing to a "chair" to demonstrate that word's meaning, smiling to show what a "smile" is.

Several factors have contributed to the growing need for ESL instruction.

"We're identifying students a lot more accurately than in the past," Faust said. Previously, districts frequently mislabeled students with limited English ability as having behavioral problems or a need for special education, she said.

Demographics also contribute, as families travel to new areas in search of better jobs. In Lehigh County, 15 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 Census. In Northampton County, 11 percent speak a language other than English at home.

"The work force has been seeing a shift from English speaking to non-English speaking," said John Segota, advocacy and communications manager for Tesol, a professional development organization for ESL teachers in Alexandria, Va. "It's been reflected in the classroom as well."

After families settle, relatives frequently come to join them.

The trend has been particularly evident in suburban school districts such as Whitehall-Coplay, where enrollment has swelled. In 2002-03, 97 ESL students were enrolled in the district, said Jack Corby, the district's director of secondary curriculum and instruction. This year, there are 151 students, he said.

This is the second year that Whitehall-Coplay has offered ESL instruction in kindergarten through 12th grades, Corby said. Before that, the district sent students in fifth through 12th grades to the Allentown School District for ESL classes.

"We just felt for various reasons they're our students, they live in our community, they're our kids, and we felt they should be going to school here," he said.

He added that his district, which now employs two ESL teachers and three aides, will do whatever it can to handle the growing need for ESL instruction.

"If that means staffing, we'll look at staffing and make a decision based on the needs."

In the Parkland School District, ESL enrollment jumped from 53 students in the 2000-01 school year to 188 students this year, said program supervisor David Grim. One full-time teacher and 11 part-timers teach ESL there, he said.

Parkland doesn't employ teacher aides, Grim said. "But I think at some point we may consider that option, especially as our population increases," he said.

While schools are feeling pressured, students are too.

Despite their U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans are as likely as anyone from Latin America to need English lessons.

"They can come and go whenever they want, but that doesn't mean they are carrying English back and forth," said Linda Lopez, secretary of the Bethlehem Area School District's ESL program. More than 900 of her program's 1,200 participants are Puerto Rican, she said.

Marrero, the Whitehall-Coplay ESL student, changed to an easier algebra course earlier in the school year because the complex English math terms "were like Chinese to me." He also struggled with his American studies course at first.

"When I started the class I got bad grades," he recalled. "My English improved, so my grades did too."

Even though Marrero has made great strides, he occasionally has trouble understanding the English language, asking people to rephrase what they say.

Carlos Reyes knows how it feels to be in a place where he can't communicate with anyone. Now 34 and a graduate of Kutztown University, Reyes knew almost no English when he arrived here from Puerto Rico at age 15 and enrolled in the Allentown School District.

"I became an average-grade student when I came here," said Reyes, who earned straight A's in Puerto Rico. "So my self-esteem went down the drain. I think if there wasn't an ESL [instructor] in my situation, maybe I would have dropped out of school."

A youth advocate for Community Commitment Incorporated, an assistance group focusing on at-risk youths, Reyes frequently sees how people with limited English ability can become the subject of taunts.

"You either withdraw and cut the conversation short or you don't say anything at all," he said.

Ana Sainz de la Pea, Allentown's first ESL coordinator in the 1980s who is now with the state Department of Education, said ESL students "often face harsh attitudes in the Lehigh Valley."

In Allentown, for example, some Spanish-speaking students said they are derided as the "Mira Mira Group," apparently because they use the word, the Spanish equivalent of "look."

"I'm a person, a human being," said Marisol Salgado, a 19-year-old senior. "They can say the most ignorant things and they pick fights with us all the time. They think [ESL] is special ed."

Conversely, ESL teachers say they have found that the Allentown district provides a good atmosphere for teaching. Allen High School ESL teacher Patty Terrero, for example, travels three hours a day to and from her home in Scranton because she believes the Allentown district provides a better climate and more expertise for ESL education.

"I was offered 34 positions before taking this job. There are plenty of jobs available closer to home, but I became convinced that Allentown would give me and my students the most support," she said.

According to the state Department of Education, Allentown's ESL population grew from 1,337 in the 2001-02 school year to 2,102 in the 2002-03 school year.

Like their classmates, ESL students take standardized tests in reading and math. But many ESL students complain that, for them, the tests only assess their ability to read English.

"I'll be reading some of those questions during the test, 20 times sometimes. It's so frustrating. All you can do is raise your hand and shout "Mister! Help!"' said Allen High School senior Mailing Rivera.

Teachers and students judge ESL's success in terms of test scores, and intangibles, like a student's confidence in the community, self-esteem and the establishment of ambitious life goals.

Whitehall-Coplay's Yakubecek said acceptance is so crucial that, when it exists, it's the most frequent indicator that a student has hit his or her stride and that the program is working.

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