2013-01-25 / Front Page

Series: When English is your second language

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Second grade students from Elizabeth Holland’s English Language Learning class perform a play for first graders at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland. Holland’s students rotate the two lead parts in the play, adapted from a Korean folktale about two brothers, rice farmers who teach each other about sharing and kindness. (Jack Flagler photo) Second grade students from Elizabeth Holland’s English Language Learning class perform a play for first graders at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland. Holland’s students rotate the two lead parts in the play, adapted from a Korean folktale about two brothers, rice farmers who teach each other about sharing and kindness. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Allison Brown’s English Language Learning (ELL) class is working on some “warmup” exercises to recognize grammatical errors.

The first sentence reads, “When i came to the high school, i was shying and i was afraid from the people.” One of the students is prepared with the answers to everything that needs a fix. Both “Is” have to be capitalized. The “-ing” suffix needs to be cut from “shy” and “of” needs to replace “from.”

The student has been in the United States for less than a year, but seems to have quickly picked up on many of the language’s grammatical eccentricities, confusing sometimes even to native speakers. The student glides through the rest of the exercises, including a few tougher sentences and some analogies.

A few months before this class, that same student wrote the first sentence on the whiteboard.

There are only three students in Brown’s class on this particular morning, but she works with 40 at the high school in ELL English, reading and world history classes. ELL classes now are a far cry from what they were when she first started, about 20 years ago, just after the program had begun in South Portland.

“I was a day late and a dollar short. It was crazy,“ Brown said. “My car was my office.”

In those years, Brown or another teacher would travel to all the South Portland schools, at every age level, to provide assistance for the 35 or so ELL students. Today, there are more than 150 ELL students, and that number could be as high as 175, according to Dianne Paton, assistant director of instructional support for the South Portland School Department.

Paton said the total is an approximation because oftentimes students and their families will take extended trips to their home countries before returning to South Portland. Although the exact number of students can vary, Paton said the increase in ELL students has been annually consistent, with about 15 to 20 new learners coming each year.

“We’ve been fortunate our numbers have been very gradually increasing, unlike some of the surrounding areas which had an influx of, I think, hundreds of students all at once,” Paton said.

The steady increase in ELL learners over the decade reflects a trend toward ethnic diversity across the city. The number of Asian, Hispanic and African-American residents in South Portland all more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

Asian, Hispanic and African-American residents made up more than 8 percent of the total population in 2010. In 2000, those residents accounted for just over 3 percent of the city’s population. White residents, meanwhile, made up 95 percent of South Portland in 2000, and 91 percent in 2010.

Elizabeth Holland, an ELL teacher at Skillin Elementary School on the west side of South Portland, said she hasn’t noticed many specific trends of students from certain countries, but she has noticed one or two students from new countries each year.

Elizabeth Holland's ELL students perform in front of their peers: Matthew Vasquez, left, was born in Peru. Poul Magaya was born in Minnesota after his family came to the US from South Sudan. (Jack Flagler photo)Elizabeth Holland's ELL students perform in front of their peers: Matthew Vasquez, left, was born in Peru. Poul Magaya was born in Minnesota after his family came to the US from South Sudan. (Jack Flagler photo)

Holland has 34 students at Skillin. She said her first Iraqi student arrived a few years ago, now she has three. The first student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo also arrived recently, joining students from Bulgaria, India, and many Spanish-speaking countries that have been present at all age levels for years.

The 34 Skillin students vary in their English skills. Some were born in the U.S., some just arrived and have never heard English before. However, Holland said the teachers at Skillin “make it work.”

For example, Holland’s class recently taught a lesson around the poem “Five Little Snowflakes.” The students with higher levels of comprehension would read the poem to each other, while a student who recently arrived in the U.S. circled the letters he was working on identifying on a plastic sleeve covering the poem. Similarly, classroom teachers will alter lesson plans to teach concepts to children who have limited English skills.

Years ago, the elementary ELL students in South Portland had to deal with an added difficulty of being unable to attend their neighborhood school. Until about 2007, all elementary ELL students attended class at Brown School. After the city went through a redistricting process, the program expanded to the four other neighborhood elementary schools, although schools with just a handful of students do not have a fulltime ELL staff member.

At the high school level, Brown said one of the toughest hurdles to overcome is time. Students with no English generally need about seven years to become fully proficient and comfortable, Brown said, but oftentimes, those students have just two or three years to catch up.

“The stakes are high when a student comes directly to the high school,” Brown said.

At all levels, teachers and staff agreed that involving parents in school activities presents an added challenge.  Students often pick up language quickly in the classroom and hallways, especially at a younger age, but their parents, with fewer opportunities to practice, can be left behind.

That sometimes leads to a situation in which children act as translators for their parents, and can make parents hesitate to become involved in schools and community because of the language barrier.

However, Brown said the ELL program can help to ease that discomfort for parents, and put the family in a situation in which they feel both valued and comfortable.

"ELL is the link between the schools and the community," Brown said.


Check back with the Sentry next week for part two of this series, in which former South Portland students from immigrant families will talk about their experiences both in school and in the community.

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