Found in Translation? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Education

Found in Translation?

Vermont's smallest school district adapts to a multilingual student body


Published September 24, 2008 at 5:38 a.m.

Andrea Wheeland teaches ELL students in Winooski - JORDAN SILVERMAN

Three flags - touting Vermont, Uncle Sam and a school mascot, respectively - hang on a pole outside the Winooski School District. It's a reasonable compromise: To buy - and fly - a flag for each of the 15-plus nationalities represented by the school's diverse student body would break its budget.

Just before 9 a.m. on a crisp September morning, three recently arrived refugee teens are getting a crash course in American history. When they landed here a few weeks ago, they spoke almost no English. But now, thanks to instruction received through Winooski's "English Language Learner" program, they can answer basic questions.

"Many Italian fisherman had to cross the ocean to earn a living in America," says Aftaba Mezetovich, an interpreter, translator and Bosnian cultural liaison who hovers patiently above the children's desks. "Why do you think people wanted to come to America?"

"They were poor," says a quiet girl whose family arrived in August from Nepal. She sits with her white sneakers dangling two feet off the floor.

Winooski, Burlington and Barre are common relocation sites for the dozens of refugees who come to Vermont every year through the Colchester-based Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, an arm of the federal U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Many refugees arrive with little or no English proficiency; some have had harrowing experiences in refugee camps. For these people, learning English isn't a hobby; it's a survival tactic.

When Associate Superintendent Mary Martineau arrived in Winooski 11 years ago, the little city had a small group of students from Bosnia and Vietnam and "one-and-a-half" teachers for them. Since 2000, she reports, the number of students classified as "ELL" - the term denotes "national-origin-minority students who are limited-English-proficient" - has more than tripled, from 52 to 183, meaning one in four Winooski school kids is speaking English as a second language. Their native tongue could be Maay Maay, Swahili or Arabic. Between 2007 and 2008, Winooski welcomed 60 new ELL students.

Martineau says the funding isn't keeping pace with the district's changing population: She suggests the ELL program could use a full-time director and a few more teachers. "We have one-and-a-half at the elementary school, one at the middle school and one-and-a-half at the high school," she says. "When you look at the numbers of students in each building, they're stretched pretty thin."

Martineau surely isn't expecting a major infusion of cash from Winooski, where the $40,000 median household income in 2005 was nearly $13,000 less than the statewide average. Indeed, notes Winooski City Councilor Michael Mahoney - whose son plays high-school soccer with ELL learners - the city's recent influx of refugees has been "hard on school budgets."

Fortunately, the 1-mile-square district is one of about 60 in Vermont receiving money through Title III of the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. On top of that $44,000, Martineau says, Vermont's Agency of Human Services provides about $28,000 for extra personnel, books, professional development and field trips. In addition, a new $900,000 federal grant will soon allow undergraduates from nearby St. Michael's College to student-teach in Winooski, Burlington and South Burlington ELL classrooms.

The same grant provides money for regular classroom teachers to learn about "cultural differences." Since beginner ELL students are mainstreamed from the moment they arrive, Winooski's non-ELL teachers are seeing more and more non-native kids in their classes. The trainings offer tips for dealing with tricky situations. For example: What should regular classroom teachers do when ELL learners are unusually quiet, or when the children don't make eye contact? "These are things teachers need to be thinking about," Martineau says.

The trainings, according to Martineau, speak to a shift in pedagogical strategy. ELL teachers are now observing their ELL students in regular classes, she explains. After class, they consult with regular classroom teachers on how best to overcome ELL students' language and cultural barriers - a process that mirrors the one used in Special Ed. "We're kind of looking at what the role of the ELL teacher should be," Martineau explains. However, she notes, it's important that ELL teachers keep up the one-on-one language instruction.

Nancy Devost, a veteran Winooski ELL teacher, offers a gentle critique of the new strategy. Though the intentions behind it are good, she says, not every classroom teacher is comfortable with the responsibility of teaching students who are still learning English. Many of this year's newly arrived students are illiterate, she adds, so the non-ELL teacher "doesn't have the time built into her schedule to go over basic vocabulary." Moreover, Devost notes, the more time ELL teachers spend in other teachers' classrooms, the less time they have for beginner-level ELL sessions.

No matter how they're taught at school, many ELL students face another barrier when it comes to getting help at home. Dalib Bulle, a 23-year-old cultural liaison from Somalia who has worked for the district since 2004, says, "It's frustrating when an American teacher expects the parent to help with homework, but the parents can't do anything." Most of the parents he interacts with are illiterate, Bulle explains. An after-school "homework club" helps ELL students catch up with their English-speaking classmates, he adds, but the club's operating hours have been reduced.

Language and communication barriers aside, Bulle sees Winooski's ELL program as a step up from the English instruction offered in refugee camps. He speaks from experience: In the crowded and disorganized Kenyan camp where he picked up English, only motivated teens learned anything useful. As a result, Bulle recalls, his younger brother entered Burlington High School in 2004 without a firm grasp of English.

Bulle's bro graduated from high school last year and is now taking classes at Community College of Vermont. Bulle, who is wrapping up a high school diploma while holding down his 9-to-5 job as a cultural liaison, attributes his brother's success partially to ELL. "Here, you are offered more help," he explains. "It's very easy for the teacher to be more focused on students, and it's not just the teacher alone in the class" - they are assisted by area college students and liaisons like himself.

On a recent Thursday morning, middle-schoolers in Andrea Wheeland's 9 a.m. beginner ELL class second Bulle's praise for ELL. "It's good," says Wissam Abdelwahab, a chatty Iraqi boy with short hair, a white T-shirt and black shorts. "Before, I just knew ABCs; now I can talk!"

"In Nepal, they are always running and fighting," adds Madhavi Nepaul, a quiet girl who flashes elusive smiles. "Here, they're reading and playing games."

Wheeland, the only full-time ELL teacher at the Winooski Middle School, says she hears similar comments all the time. A third-year ELL instructor who used to teach in Westchester County, New York, Wheeland says her students are often surprised - "and sometimes a little taken aback" - to learn that their teachers "actually care" about their behavior.

ELL students who haven't received formal schooling can pose behavioral challenges, Wheeland notes. But on the whole, they are more appreciative of their studies than are their Vermont-born counterparts. "We have different kinds of problems than other teachers," she remarks. "But I think they're wonderful problems to have."