ELL program helps students adapt to Lincoln through English language

Story by Zach Henke, NewsNetNebraska

Lincoln Public School’s English Language Learner (ELL) program helps immigrant and refugee students and their families become productive members of the Lincoln community by teaching students the English language. The program focuses on teaching students how to read, write, listen to and speak English, as well as helping them understand American culture.

The ELL program was started at Lincoln Public Schools in 1989 with a total of 141 students enrolled in the program. This year, 2016, there are over 3,000 students in the program. The students in the program cover a span of 121 different countries that represent a total of 119 different languages.

Importance of ELL program:

Oscar Pohirieth, cultural specialist and bilingual liaison coordinator for Lincoln Public Schools, said that he believes it is important to teach immigrants and refugees not only how to speak and write, but how to navigate the system through speaking and writing so they can be productive and cooperate with others.

“It is not only important, but it’s a must have for any district to have the ability to educate new immigrants and new refugee families. Because if a district determines that they should not be educated by the simple concept of teaching English then we are going to be creating unproductive members of the society. People who will depend on other people in order to do things for them, when they could actually be doing those things for themselves,” said Pohirieth.

Laura Salem, supervisor of the ELL program at Lincoln Public Schools, said that she thinks it’s important to provide students with the kind of instructions that they need so they can be part of their school community and Lincoln as a community.

“I love working with students and helping them learn language so that they can communicate with friends, teachers, and each other. When you have 119 different languages in the district, there’s a good chance that in a classroom you are going to have a wide variety of students in it that until they all learn English, they have troubles speaking with each other.”

Pohirieth has been with the district for a total of 19 years. Nine years as a Latino bilingual liaison, and the last 10 years as coordinator of the 23 bilingual liaisons that the district currently has.

Pohirieth said that the beautiful thing about working with bilingual liaisons and ELL students is that it pushes him to his limits.

“There was a moment in time when I was only focusing on serving Latino families, and that’s all I could do. But once I realized that the world was bigger than that, then I began to allow myself the opportunity to see things through somebody else’s lenses (perspective). It has taught me how to communicate with human persons, and that is the best part about it.”

Rebecca Mantonya has been teaching ELL classes at LPS for 12 years. She currently teaches ELL to first, second, fourth and fifth graders at Norwood Park Elementary and Brownell Elementary.

According to Mantonya, an ELL classroom can be a safe place for ELL students to open up and ask questions regarding American culture and any other things they may not understand.

“It’s nice being able to open up and share with them some of the good and bad things about American culture that they may have questions about. Sometimes the kids can have a lot of pressure on them when they’re learning a new language and have to go out in the community and interpret things they may not understand, so it’s nice to be their cheerleader and tell them that it’s going to be hard work, but never give up, and they can count on me to always be willing to help,” said Mantonya.

Growth of ELL program:

When the ELL program was started at Lincoln Public Schools in 1989, there were only 141 students enrolled in the program. Today there are 3,310 students in the program, anew-piktochart_18745107_73cd7ca6c29937fc1bb2dc8ac3cb14a818f45819 growth of 393 students from the previous year, 2015, when they had 2,917 students.

In the past two years, Salem has hired 15 additional staff members to help accommodate for the growing number of students each year, bringing the total of full-time ELL teachers to 100. Salem said that it can be hard to accommodate to every student in the ELL program with the limited staff members they have.

“We have to evaluate how much attention each level of students needs. Many of the new students that are coming into the district are at level one and need a lot of attention so that when they start moving along they’ve had a good foundation built in place,” said Salem.

Mantonya said that one of the biggest problems with the program is that teachers are being stretched to help large amounts of students. Mantonya is the only ELL teacher at both Norwood Park and Brownell Elementary, which means she has to travel from one school to the other every day to meet with all of her students.

“I’d like to do more for them then I can right now. Having students for short groups and working with four different grade levels at two different schools each day I’m not able to give them everything I would like to give them. There are some of my kids that I would love to spend more time with and just help them feel safe and accepted. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time for all of that,” said Mantonya.

Placement process within the ELL program:

According to Salem, when students come to Lincoln Public Schools and indicate a language other than English on their census form, they are required to do an English assessment at the Welcome Center at Park Middle School.

new-piktochart_843_9e5fe13dc2c57c41efa49f070110bd6c4b088981After the results of the assessment are shared with the student’s parents, the parents have the right to accept or decline ELL services for their child if he or she did not pass the assessment.

If parents accept services then their child is placed in a level ranging from one to four within the ELL program. Level one students are very new to English, and level five students are close to proficient in English.

“A level one student will spend four periods of their school day in an ELL classroom. Level two would have three periods, until they get to level four when they only have one period of the day that they are in an ELL classroom,” said Salem.

The four focus domains in the ELL program are reading, writing, speaking, and listening, said Salem.

“They work on all of those components all the time during the day. They kind of flow together and they’re really targeted on helping students to be proficient in English,” said Salem.

Pohirieth immigrated to the United States 27 years ago without knowing any English. Today, he thinks that he is an independent, productive member of society.

“I didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t understand anything about this culture. I didn’t know how to communicate with anybody in my new adopted community. But it was through education; it was through the fact that in Lincoln I found ways to educate myself, and in Lincoln I found wonderful educators, I found people who opened their arms to allow me the opportunity to learn,” said Pohirieth.

“Society would be doing a disservice for their own people to think that spending resources to teach English, or basic communication skills, or how to navigate the system to a immigrant or refugee family would be wrong.”

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