MARSHALL - With so many Head Start programs and other preschool organizations nowadays, it's hard to imagine a child starting kindergarten without essential educational tools, like the mastery of colors, letters and numbers as well as a basic understanding of the English language. But since Marshall is a town rich with diverse ethnicities, it's also a place where language and communication barriers can hinder the educational process.
That's where English Language Learner (ELL) professionals come in. Marshall Public Schools employs seven ELL teachers - Kari Ehlers and Lori Fisher-Dyce at the middle school, Christine Hess and Vickie Radloff at the high school, Kimberly Shaikoski at West Side Elementary and Kristi Wiese and Mary Jo Eick at Park Side Elementary.
"You wouldn't necessarily think our community has all these ethnicities, but when you go into the schools, you really notice it," Wiese said. "The majority of our ELL students are at Park Side, where we have 85. The three main ones are Spanish-speaking, Hmong and Somali students."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
While their parents attended a meeting encouraging parental involvement in education, English Language Learner students played games and read books with volunteers in the media center Thursday at Park Side Elementary School. Park Side ELL teachers Kristi Wiese and Mary Jo Eick conducted the meeting with interested parents.
Wiese said that the state requires that every student who comes into the school system fill out a language questionnaire. If the student marks a different language besides English, then an English proficiency test is given. Those with a need will begin a curriculum program.
"We start at the beginning," Wiese said. "We work on writing their name, colors and shapes, learning how to speak in sentences and learning the basic vocabulary."
At Park Side, both Wiese and Eick work with beginner students, in groups of one to two. Depending on the need, more advanced students would work in groups of four to six. The curriculum for ELL students focuses on four areas: speaking, listening, reading and writing.
"We usually work with each group for about 30-40 minutes on a daily basis," Wiese said. " It's very important. They need to know the language in order to progress."
For the past month or so, Wiese has been working with three new students - two from Africa and one from Guatemala - who had never been in a school setting before.
"They're all non-speakers," Wiese said. "They've had no formal schooling and they have no English skills. But just this past week, all three of them wrote their name without looking at a name card. It's very neat to see their progress."
One of the biggest assets for a ELL student is enhancing parent involvement, said Wiese, who researched the value of it while she was in the process of earning her master's degree.
"Parental involvement is very important to the success of the child," Wiese said. "Parents are the first teachers and things get very busy when they come to school. Our goal is to increase parent involvement so parents can keep helping their kids."
To encourage parents to be involved in their ELL student's education, a parent meeting was scheduled.
After the original meeting was postponed because of the weather, all the parents had to be contacted with the new date. Wiese said that Tina Quinones, a Spanish interpreter, was exceptionally helpful. On Thursday, a number of those parents met with Wiese and Eick in the media center at Park Side.
"We (originally) had 25 people that signed up," Wiese said. "We gave out handbags with resources like writing paper and utensils, flashcards and books. Mary Jo had them in her room for a portion of the time, going over school rules and how to help the kids with their homework. It can be really overwhelming when they get papers every day that are in English."
In the computer lab, Wiese introduced parents to the school website and explained the process for searching for teacher pages, homework assignments, lunch menus, grades, and pay options for activities and services. The participants also received forms to fill out if they chose to apply for a Marshall-Lyon County Library card.
"We're support professionals," Wiese said. "We support what the teachers do in the regular classrooms. Every teacher in our district has a webpage and most post their newsletter online, so I really wanted to show those parents how to check those websites."
While the parents learned more about indispensable communication, two of Quinones' grandchildren volunteered to play games and read books in order to occupy their children.
Wiese said that the state funds an ELL student for five years, but that MPS will continue to work with a student for as long as needed. More meetings for parents will likely take place in the future, beginning with a tentative date in the fall.
"After five years, it doesn't mean you'd quit servicing them," Wiese said. "The need is usually between 7-10 years, but some are less. Some cultures respond differently, depending on how education is valued. Hopefully we get the word out that we're here to help."