The 20 second-graders hail from all corners of the globe. Some arrived in Spokane after fleeing violence in their native countries. Others relocated more peacefully, their families immigrating for work, school or family. The 20 students speak 11 languages and come from Russia, Vietnam, the Marshall Islands and more.
Every afternoon, they come together to dance and sing to the popular American rap song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” The students have choreographed their own dance. Their teacher, Raeanne Cumbie, uses the dance interlude to blow off steam between lessons. Watching them dance, she’s clearly proud of the class dynamic and their willingness to learn English.
Cumbie’s Stevens Elementary classroom represents a new model for English language instruction in Spokane Public Schools. Instead of sprinkling English language learners in different classrooms, some schools are concentrating all the students in one classroom, called clustering or sheltered instruction.
Clustering helps students relax and removes some of the stigma of not speaking English fluently, said Heather Richardson, the director of Spokane Public Schools English Language Development. The approach is showing good results, with some kids who didn’t speak any English advancing to grade-level standards in the same school year.
But in addition to the learning benefits, the model is a response to an increasingly stressed English language learning system, both in Spokane and statewide, with few specialized teachers and an ever-growing population of students needing help.
An increasing population
The car bomb exploded minutes after their children registered for school. It shook the building, blew out windows and was the final straw for the family of seven.
Zahraa Nashawi and Hussein Alaameri’s five children, ranging in age from 4 to 10, sit in a semicircle in a small north Spokane apartment. Nashawi, who’s originally from Syria, and Alaameri, from Iraq, arrived in Spokane almost two years ago.
Their experience in Spokane Public Schools stands in stark contrast to their experiences in Iraq, Syria and eventually Turkey.
“We really appreciate all the teacher’s help because as parents we have limited English,” Nashawi said.
Families like Nashawi and Alaameri’s are increasingly common in Spokane Public Schools. As of March 15 there were 69 languages spoken in the district and 1,655 English language learners. While the district has taken steps to add services for these students and their families, it is limited by a lack of state funding, Richardson said.
Currently, each English as a Second Language certified elementary teacher in Spokane serves between 60 and 70 students. ESL-certified teachers are expected to meet every day with each student in their caseload and provide them individualized support and instruction.
“The problem we’re having is that when this policy was made 20 years ago you had kids who came from educated backgrounds. But now most of our kids are coming from countries that had no previous education,” said Patricia Kadel, an ESL teacher at Sheridan Elementary. “The policy and the program budget really has not accommodated the way that our demographic changed.”
Statewide, the effects of an increased population of people who need to learn English, without increased services, is clear. English language learners, who speak more than 200 languages, are the fastest-growing student population in Washington, but two out of three don’t meet state standards in core areas, according to a report produced by the Washington State PTA organization.
That pressure will only increase, said Mark Kadel, the director of World Relief Spokane and Patricia Kadel’s husband. The number of refugees the United States will accept in 2016 is increasing from 70,000 to 85,000. Spokane’s yearly number likely will go from under 500 to closer to 600, he said.
More refugees are expected to come from African countries, which usually means larger families and more school-age children.
Mark Kadel and Richardson, of Spokane Public Schools, work closely; their offices are just across the street from one another near North Central High School. While Kadel is confident World Relief will be able to place the increased number of refugees, he believes ESL teachers in Spokane need more support.
“It’s a huge issue,” he said.
The sheer workload ESL teachers have is one reason clustering, or clustered instruction, is beneficial, said Patricia Kadel. Instead of having ESL teachers go to each student’s class individually, the specialist can come into the shared classroom, maximizing time and resources.
“When you have 20 different languages, sheltered instruction is the best model,” Richardson said. “They interact and immerse themselves with each other in a powerful way.”
All Stevens Elementary English language learners will be clustered together by grade, and other schools around the district are starting to follow suit. Starting in the fall, Sheridan Elementary also will have clustered instruction in every grade. Roosevelt Elementary has it at certain grades and Garfield Elementary kindergarten classes are clustered. Eventually, Richardson hopes to have clustered instruction in all kindergarten and first-grade classes throughout the district.
Cumbie has taught under both models and said she loves the impact clustered instruction has on her students. She remembers a Marshallese student who came into her class for the first time with a “deer in the headlights, petrified look.” Then, eight other Marshallese students started speaking to him, in Marshallese.
“You could just see the ahhh in his body,” she said.
That has led to results in the classroom, Cumbie said. Last year all but one of her students were at or above grade level after only a year of clustered instruction. That included six students who came to America for the first time in August.
Kamian Fox, an ESL-certified teacher at Stevens Elementary, said when English language learners are in a classroom full of native English speakers they often don’t talk. This changes when they are with students experiencing similar struggles, which leads to better academic results.
“When they are clustered they are all in the same boat,” Fox said. “They aren’t afraid to take risks because they know they are all making grammar mistakes.”
Zainab Khalefa, a second-grader at Regal Elementary, benefited from clustered instruction when she attended Stevens Elementary for a couple of months last year.
“She felt more comfortable that she is not the only one that doesn’t know English,” said Khalefa’s mother, Entisar Ahmed. “They are learning quickly. They are catching up.”
Ahmed and her family came to Spokane from Iraq in July.
“We dream of a higher education for us and a better future for our family,” she said.
Mark Kadel said this is a common sentiment among refugee families. Often the first thing they ask World Relief when they get off the plane is, “How soon can I get my kids in school?”
World Relief collaborates closely with the school district to orient and place students. As the organization and its volunteers help families settle in, they introduce them to Richardson’s staff at the Family Registration and Orientation Center, who help the students sign up for school.
“They value education so highly,” Kadel said. “They want to start their life over again.”
Support beyond the classroom
While Khalefa may be receiving the necessary educational support at her school, her mother, Ahmed, is not.
James Rosenfeld, an education law professor at Seattle University, believes Washington is failing parents like Ahmed.
Rosenfeld co-authored a report for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in January 2015 that focused on parents like Ahmed and the services they were, or were not, receiving.
“It is not enough to focus our language efforts only on students,” the report said. “As a system, our public schools must give educators the tools they need to build strong partnerships with all families, including those with limited English proficiency.”
Particularly, Rosenfeld worries about parents understanding and having access to critical education documents like Individualized Education Plans, which are used for children receiving special education. Rosenfeld, whose background is in special education law, believes the state has a legal responsibility to provide translation and interpretation services to families who have limited English proficiency.
“My personal viewpoint is that education interpreting is just as important as medical or legal,” he said, adding that unlike medical or legal interpreting there is no specialized certification for education interpreters or translators. “There are a whole lot of documents that are important in special education that are never translated.”
The report recommended a number of steps including educating staff on how to find interpreters and translators as well as establishing a professional certification for educational interpreters. Although the Washington Legislature requested the study, Rosenfeld said little has been done to increase funding for families with limited English proficiency. Because of that he filed a special education citizen complaint in January claiming the state has failed to provide the necessary language services that parents of English language learners need.
The complaint asks that all school districts adopt policies for parents with limited English skills, effective Jan. 1. It also asks the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to ensure that translators and interpreters working in the education field are familiar with education terminology and law.
Eric Anderson and Marta Reyes, co-owners of Perciba Inc., a Spokane-based language school and translation center, said the lack of integration for parents is something they encounter often in their work.
“What happens is the parents … they are left behind,” Anderson said. “What is happening is they create a sort of language ghetto.”
‘Our families trust the schools’
Richardson looks forward to the inevitable growth of English language learners.
“I’m really excited to see more students coming and creating more of a diverse culture here in Spokane,” she said. “To me learning about new cultures and being able to share that is valuable.”
That doesn’t mean more can’t be done.
In a January presentation to Spokane Public Schools’ board, Richardson emphasized the success of the clustered instruction model and asked for more support. Richardson hopes the district can have an interpretation and translation center, lower teacher-to-student ratios at the elementary level, cluster more classrooms and hire more ESL-certified teachers.
Areej Alabbasi is Spokane Public Schools’ sole Arabic interpreter and translator. For her the issue encompasses the various efforts of Richardson, Kadel and Rosenfeld.
Alabbasi, an Iraqi immigrant, said the differences between cultures can be profound and the transition for an immigrant or refugee family tumultuous. Often the best way for children and parents to learn and integrate into American culture is through the schools, which makes the role schools and educators play all the more vital.
“Our families trust the schools,” she said.
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