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Some parents say ESOL isn’t working

By Christina Killion Valdez

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Emanuel Celis Gomez looked forward to starting high school this year. The chance to have his own locker at John Marshall High School, though, didn’t make up for the frustration of being separated from his peers for English for Speakers of Other Languages classes.

"You feel like you are not even in the same school," he said. "You might as well go to middle school."

School districts are federally mandated to provide ESOL services to students. However, Emanuel’s father, Aurelio Celis Munos, and several other parents of English-language learners say they don’t feel the method of pulling students out of mainstream classes to receive English instruction is working for their children.

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They shared their concerns about the ESOL program, including issues of segregation and lower levels of education, with the school board in November and have continued to stay in contact with district officials.

Among those speaking out are Francisco Lopez and his wife, Angelica Ledesma, who has a bachelor’s degree in curriculum development.

While the couple never enrolled their two children in ESOL classes after immigrating from Mexico to Boston then to Rochester, they said they’ve seen their friends’ and family’s children in ESOL fall behind.

‘Pull-out’ approach criticized

With that the couple said they began researching methods of teaching English and found that while well intended, the "pull-out" approach used in Rochester is minimal in comparison to other methods outlined by the Minnesota Department of Education.

That is something the whole community should be concerned about, Lopez said. "This may sound like an issue that only pertains to immigrants, but the way you integrate the community will have effects 10 years from now."

In Rochester most students spend three to five years in ESOL classes, while students in ESOL programs using methods such as "dual immersion" or "sheltered English instruction" usually finish in fewer than three years, Ledesma said. Plus, while being pulled out of mainstream classes, ESOL students here miss anything from 25 to 100 percent of the expected curriculum for children their age, she said.

She encouraged the district to look at ways to mainstream English learners more quickly.

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"You won’t learn how to swim if you don’t get yourself in the water," Ledesma said.

Judy Auger, ESOL coordinator for the district, agrees some students have felt isolated and stigmatized for being separated from the mainstream students. However, she disagrees with some of the parents’ findings.

Conversational English can be learned in two or three years, but academic English might take five to seven years to learn, she said.

Many in ESOL born in U.S.

Lopez and Ledesma say they were also surprised to find that about 200 out of about 2,150 students in ESOL were born and raised in the United States. Yet Auger noted that it’s not a student’s place of birth, but rather their environment that is key to their language skills.

In Rochester public schools, a student is identified as eligible for ESOL if when entering the district a parent indicates a language other than English is spoken in the home, Auger said.

Once a student is identified as eligible for ESOL, he or she takes an English proficiency test to indicate in what level to place that student.

If a student is determined a newcomer, he or she spends the whole day in intensive English classes at a newcomers center. Students can also be placed in various levels of ESOL classes. In elementary school, students generally leave the classroom for 30 minutes a day of ESOL classes. That increases to one or two class periods in middle school and one to three class periods in high school.

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All of the classes are taught using a content-based model, with English being taught through social studies or science, allowing students to acquire background in that subject as well as English skills, Auger said.

The "push-in" model is also being tried at Pinewood Elementary, she said. There, both an ESOL teacher and a regular teacher work with ESOL and mainstream students in the same classroom. The collaborative teaching approach is good for all students, but the cost of having two teachers in classroom is prohibitive, she said.

Special funding from the federal government is granted per ESOL student for up to five years, Auger said. However, the funding doesn’t cover the full cost of the program, so money also comes from the general fund, she said.

But Lopez said the way funding is set up creates a conflict of interest. The people who decide when a student can leave ESOL are the same people whose salaries depend on that funding, he said.

Auger said that determining when a student moves out of ESOL is based on several criteria, including how well a student does in the classroom and on standardized tests. Plus, "At any point a parent has the right to refuse the services," she said.

Student pulled from ESOL, succeeds

Ernesto Llano, a senior at John Marshall, said he didn’t speak any English when he arrived in Rochester from Spain, yet this year he is in an Advanced Placement English class. Llano credits his success in part to the ESOL classes he took for two years, but also to his parents who pulled him out of ESOL when he entered sixth grade.

Looking back, he said the transition was hard but worthwhile. Students who stay in ESOL too long may miss out on going to college, he said. "How rigorous the course work is one of the main things colleges consider," he said.

Yet Aurelio Celis, who pulled three of his sons out of ESOL this fall, said the process wasn’t simple or clear for his 15-year-old son Emanuel.

After some confusion, Emanuel was allowed to transfer out of ESOL midway through the fall semester. But because he lost some credits in the transfer, Emanuel is now taking night classes four times a week for science and English. Getting him into the ‘recovery’ classes also took two additional days of meetings, Celis said. Then again this week his son was administered a follow-up ESOL test, he said.

Even with the problems, Celis said he’s seen a renewed commitment to school in his son, when earlier he’d butted heads with his ESOL teacher.

He’d like to see the same kind of turn around for other struggling minorities, he said.

During a presentation by the superintendent Celis said he learned that by 2050 the minority population will equal that of the majority.If they are not integrated or educated it will hurt the nation, he said. "We need to be united."

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