Schools work to address language barriers - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Schools work to address language barriers

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WATERLOO (KWWL)-- Waterloo is a diverse community, with some 5 percent of the population being Bosnian, and around 3 percent is Hispanic.  For immigrants, coming to America presents great opportunity, but also great challenges in learning to speak English.  Read on to learn how local schools are working to address language barriers for students and their families.

There's a group of students in the Waterloo Community School that all share a unique bond.  English is often not their first language.  It's a student segment that represents 26 different language groups, and it makes up around 6 percent of all kids enrolled.

"When we have students enroll with limited English proficiency, we have a big job to do, which can present certain challenges," said Amy White, English Language Learner coordinator for the Waterloo Community School district.

That's where the English Language Learner program comes in.

"Quite often, the students are just thrilled with meeting new friends.  And once they have friends, they want to know how to communicate with them," White said.

So the ELL program provides specialized teachers to help students learn to speak and write English at the same level as their classmates.

"The struggle really is on the academic side, and making sure they know their academic vocabulary, and that we're preparing them well for the same content standards that we hold their native English peers to, which we certainly do," said White.

Alexander Espinoza's 7-year-old daughter Ashley has been enrolled in ELL classes.  And for him, it's a blessing, since he didn't have a chance to learn the language at her age.

"In the future, I don't want my kids to struggle like I did," Espinoza said.

That's what Waterloo schools strive to accomplish for ELL students.  ELL students typically achieve English proficiency within four years. 

It's a program that's supported by your tax-paying dollars.  The Waterloo Community Schools receive weighted funding of $118.09 for ELL students, along with federal "Title III" grant funding, totaling $99,434.28 in this year's budget alone.  But educators emphasize that these classes help build life-long language skills that allow the next generation to be key contributors to society.

"I would say it's important, for one thing, because they are members of our community that most likely will stay and will be getting jobs and will be in some way rendering services to us as we get a bit older.  And I would think for all people, that we want to have an educated group of people graduating and being in our communities," White said.

It's that education that helps minimize language barriers for all of us.

The Waterloo Community School district also employs 9 full time Bosnian interpreters and 7.2 ful-time equivalent Spanish interpreters. They often help families translate important student information, like permission slips and class schedules.

Other large districts in eastern Iowa have similar programs.  In Iowa City, for example, there's an ELL program with a total of 500 students, about half of which are considered "active."   The district also has 28 trained interpreters, most of who are volunteers.  The district also works closely with the University of Iowa to provide needed language services for students and their families.

 KWWL Reporter:  Kera Mashek

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