When Ehlawlah started school in the United States four years ago, she could barely speak English.
“School was hard at first,” said the 9-year-old, who is a refugee from Southeast Asia. “I couldn’t understand anything.”
The Sheridan Elementary School student is Karen, a small ethnic group from Myanmar. She represents just one person in a growing segment of the area’s public schools: minorities.
The minority population has grown 10 percent in Spokane Public Schools and about 5 percent in Central Valley and East Valley school districts in the past seven years, according to state data. The area’s growth is affected almost equally by a changing population nationwide and a local World Relief refugee center – one of 23 in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and local school officials.
The addition of new ethnic minorities does more than add diversity to classrooms; it also causes teachers to reassess how they run lessons each day in order to make sure every child is learning, no matter their native tongue or culture. Roughly 17 percent of the nearly 7,000 minority students in Spokane Public Schools, representing dozens of languages, are enrolled in a program designed to teach them English.
For Ferris High School student Hser Clay, who also is Karen, school has been difficult, but she’s getting A’s, B’s and C’s.
Her classes move rapidly, and her English is “so-so,” which makes learning intimidating, she says.
Both girls attended a language day camp at Gonzaga University for much of July, which is one way area educators teach English to new speakers.
Ehlawlah, who has no last name, just completed her third year at the three-week English Language Camp – a partnership between Spokane Public Schools and the university.
She was joined by more than 200 other students from all grades throughout the region. The camp has grown over the years.
“When I started I might have had eight, maybe 10 kids in a classroom; now I have 30,” said Choua Birge, an English Language Camp coordinator and a second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School.
This year, the students learned about “going green,” Birge said.
For three weeks students practiced songs and chants and identified items in pictures centered on the theme “reduce, reuse and recycle.”
The camp culminated with performances from each of the classes. Some students sang, some held up the letters that spelled out what they were saying and others chanted in rounds.
Phil Koestner, Spokane Public Schools’ English Language Development program coordinator, said “Music and chants are one way to get them to learn English.”
Ehlawlah says, “It teaches me about America.”
Hser and Ehlawlah’s ethnic group of Karen is “probably the second-fastest-growing refugee group in Spokane schools,” Koestner said. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is under a military dictatorship, so the U.S. has granted the Karen refugee status.
Karen is included in Asian population as counted by the school districts. According to data from Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Asian student population in Spokane Public Schools has grown 30 percent since the 1993-’94 school year.
Marshallese, another Asian ethnic group, is the fastest growing, Koestner said. In the Marshall Islands of Micronesia, radiation from a hydrogen bomb that detonated in 1954 has made the land hard to live off and causes health problems.
Like the Karen, many Marshallese come to Spokane through the help of World Relief, a nonprofit ministry group that offers humanitarian aid, disaster and emergency relief.
World Relief primarily helps refugees and has brought people to Spokane from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Cuba and the Ukraine, said Mark Kadel, director of World Relief in Spokane.
“We bring in about 500 refugees each year,” Kadel said. “About 100 to 150 per year are schoolchildren.”
Consequently, enrollment in the English Language Development program has gone up steadily in the past five years, Koestner said. About 1,200 K-12 students are enrolled in the program, which is geared toward students with little or no English.
As of this year, there are 53 different languages spoken in Spokane Public Schools, officials said.
Nationally, 10.9 million school-age children ages 5 to 17 spoke a language other than English at home in 2008, or one in seven; 7.8 million of these children spoke Spanish, according to the Census Bureau.
However, the growing Hispanic population in Spokane-area schools – a 91 percent increase in Spokane Public Schools since 1993-’94 – has not been much of a factor in the English Language Development enrollment.
“Most of those students here are second generation or they’ve already had three or four years of school,” Koestner said. “They often move here from Brewster (Wash.) or Pasco.”
The increases in the Asian and Hispanic populations fall in line with the nation’s population changes, according to the Census Bureau.
Grant Elementary School, in the East Central neighborhood, has the highest minority population in Spokane Public Schools, at 49 percent.
“I had seven English language learners in my class last year,” said Birge. “You have high expectations, but they are not going to get everything.”
With math, “they know the numbers, but the problem is the numbers are embedded in word problems,” she added.
“Even well before the changes in diversity, we’ve had curriculum that addresses cultures and language,” said Jon D. Sunderland, dean of the Gonzaga University School of Education. “We have a requirement that all those training to be teachers need to have some diverse experience. We try to put them in the Spokane Public Schools that have the most diverse populations.”
Grant, Logan, Stevens, Holmes, Whitman and Lidgerwood elementaries all have 34 percent or more minority enrollment. Officials say those schools are in areas with Spokane’s highest poverty levels.
Districtwide, minority enrollment stands at 25 percent.
Teachers in districts with changing demographics have had to change from a one-size-fits-all teaching style so that English language learners are not left behind.
Birge uses techniques Koestner began training teachers in Spokane Public Schools to do two years ago.
“You put information into rhythm so it’s easier to remember,” she said. “Also, we use total physical response,” where kids use actions to play out what they are saying, singing or chanting.
Singing to learn works well for her second-grade math and science lessons.
“In second-grade science, we are learning about bees, and they have to know the body,” Birge said. So they changed the words to the song: “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to “Head, thorax, abdomen, compound eyes, six legs, four wings, proboscis and a stinger.”
Another technique: “There’s also a lot of peer learning, like ‘Turn and talk to your neighbor,’ ” Birge said. This works with many subjects. “That way the ones who don’t understand a question will hear the answer from someone else first or they ask their neighbor.”
Then when Birge calls on them to answer a question individually, they are less afraid to raise their hands.
One of Birge’s colleagues at Sheridan Elementary School started using the same techniques. “She said her test scores went up,” Birge said.
The method works, Birge said, and “more and more teachers are getting on board.”
But teachers need to be aware that just because a student can participate in the classroom, it doesn’t always mean they understand.
“In all the classrooms, checking for understanding is built in,” Sunderland said. “Parroting rather than understanding is something teachers need to be aware of with students.”
Methods of teaching in multicultural classrooms are similar around the country.
“Addressing diversity issues has been part of the curriculum for a while, but who those ethnic groups are change,” Sunderland said. “We move from the perspective that all kids have the ability to learn.”