By Ayesha Vishnani
Brookridge Elementary Principal Sue Adams remembers a sense of distress when Shawnee Mission teachers started to realized they couldn’t communicate with an increasing number of their students. At least, not in English.
When Adams came to the district in the early 2000s, the English language learner (ELL) enrollment rate was just below 3 percent. In the intervening years, that number has skyrocketed. In 2000, there were 590 students enrolled in Shawnee Mission classes who didn’t speak English as a primary language. By 2010, that number had grown to 2,535. Last year, it was up to 3,317 — an increase of 460 percent in 17 years.
And as the number of ELL students has grown, so has the range of native languages those students speak. Spanish remains the most common non-English language spoken by Shawnee Mission students, but the district reports that it sees as many as 70 other languages in any given year.
For decades, non-native English speakers had been a rarity in Shawnee Mission, and consequently most teachers didn’t have experience incorporating them into classroom activities. When principals told teachers they had placed an ELL student in their classrooms 20 years ago, many would express dismay. Some viewed such students as a hindrance.
“There was alarm,” Adams said. “’What are we going to do with these differences? We don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. How in the world are we going to do it?’ I think part of the huge alarm was we don’t speak these languages.”
As a result, English language learners were often thrust into classrooms with teachers who were unable to navigate their unique backgrounds, cultures and experiences. For these students, not only was the language a barrier, but it was also the lack of awareness within schools that had never engaged with differences on such a wide scale. Ultimately, some students didn’t feel welcome in class.
With the growing prevalence of ELL students in the district, though — 13 schools have a ELL enrollment rate higher than 15 percent — Shawnee Mission is taking proactive steps to ensure its staff has the training necessary to make sure ELL students get the same quality of education as their native English speaking peers.
On a Wednesday morning at Westridge Middle school this summer, Kansas State University’s Shabina Kavimandan paces around a social studies classroom quietly observing as students crammed into seats too small for them fill out a worksheet. The students for the day are Westridge’s classroom teachers, attending a training session on ELL education.
The students watch a video of a theatre production by former ELL students now attending K-State. In it, the students demand society stop judging them based on their accents, test scores and skin color. “Don’t judge me” they say over and over again.
The session is part of a collaboration led by Socorro Herrera between K-State and the Shawnee Mission District to educate teachers on how to create an environment that facilitates ELL growth and focuses on “biography-driven instruction.” Herrera is the director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy at K-State.
“Until we feel respected and part of a classroom oftentimes we don’t engage and give ourselves fully, until we know we fit some where,” Herrera said. “So that’s what we mean by biography – getting to know the whole child and using what we learn to be able to provide the best instruction possible.”
Kavimandan, who moved from India when she was 22, said she often uses her own experiences of culture shock and lack of acceptance to educate teachers on how to deal with ELLs in the classroom.
Now, along with being K-State’s Associate Director of Curriculum and Innovation, she works as the project manager and instructor for the collaboration with Shawnee Mission under Herrera. The program has worked with 10 schools so far in the district.
Although Kavimandan knew English when she came to K-State, she said things like accents, cultural differences and unfamiliar skills made the process of interacting with teachers and students a difficult one.
“In India, we come from a very regimented, very disciplined kind of system in classrooms,” Kavimandan said. “You come here, and I’m sitting in my graduate level class and people were allowed to eat snacks, call the teachers on a first name basis. It was a shock. We don’t realize those things.”
She said when K-State instructors work with teachers, they incorporate a classroom environment in which teachers can gain and then transfer knowledge to their own classrooms the very next day. Teachers can pick up tools and other strategies to help facilitate that learning.
Recently, that work has been quantified by K-State’s team under Herrera. According to the team’s data, teachers with higher scores on a test that measures their knowledge of the strategies taught within the program had a frequent correlation to students with higher RIT scores. This was not simply limited to ELL students, which shows versatility of the program.
However, Herrera said the best measure of the effectiveness of the program is not the quantitative data, which is starting to show positive results, but more importantly the qualitative data, which is visible in a student’s desire to be in the classroom.
“You can do all the data analysis in the world, you can provide all the interventions in the world, you can buy all the curriculum in the world, you can spend a lot of money,” Herrera said. “But until you build a relationship and engage that learner and show them respect and care for the kids who are on that very bottom quartile, oftentimes you’re never going to bring them forward. That’s just a fact. You don’t even need science for that. It’s just understanding the human being.”
Herrera has implemented the program with districts across the country, and said because Shawnee Misson is just at the “tip of the iceberg” in creating an infrastructure for ELL student’s needs, there may be a fear of the unknown.
However, she said Shawnee Mission’s response to the program has been enthusiastic in comparison to other districts.
“We have very energized administrators, we have teachers that are thinkers and doers. The response has been very open door,” Herrera said. “I’ve been pleased with the level of out of the box thinking.”
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at some of the strategies Shawnee Mission educators are learning for understanding the ELL experience and how to integrate ELL students into their classrooms.