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Your Schools: Non-English-speaking student population grows in district

Teacher Patti Kuenzie works with a non-English-speaking student. Submitted photo

When asked a question that she didn't understand, Linda, a student from Cambodia, kept raising her eyebrows because Cambodian culture emphasizes facial gestures.

That appeared to other students as if Linda was flirting with them.

Another student, Angelina, having grown up in a refugee camp, couldn't comprehend what a shark was.

Korean students had difficulty calling their teacher "Mrs. Kuenzie," because they were used to addressing their instructor simply as "Teacher."

At a recent administrative meeting, River Falls teacher Patti Kuenzie presented an overview of the services she provides to students in the district like Angelina and Linda who struggle with English literacy. The information Patti shared, I thought, would be valuable for the public to know, too.

This year our district has 30 students who struggle with English that Patti serves in all of our schools, including St. Bridget Parish School. Her program is simultaneously referred to as ESL (English as a Second Language), ELL (English Language Learners), LEP (Limited English Proficiency), and several other acronyms all referring to the same program.

The students and families she works with this year come from Thailand, Laos, Sudan, China, Russia, Turkey, Korea, Brazil, Peru, Rwanda, Vietnam, Dominican Republic and Hungary.

Languages spoken in the homes of these children include Hmong, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Hungarian, Swahili and sometimes even English. It is not uncommon for these families to speak multiple languages other than English.

Parents and their children coming to River Falls with little or no English speaking, listening, reading and writing skills are generally pretty desperate for help with the English language in order to thrive at work and school. Patti's welcoming approach and inviting spirit immediately puts families at ease, as they quickly realize her goal is to integrate the children as quickly and comfortably into the main stream classroom as soon as possible.

Patti started her work in the district in 2000, first as a 15 hour per week tutor, but about six years ago she moved into the role of full-time ESL teacher. The number of students in her program when she started was five, grew to 40 in 2004, and has mostly been around 30 students the last three years.

Students are leveled with a rating from 1-7 depending on the students' English literacy skills. Patti's time with individual students is parceled out according to student needs and level of progress. Families, too, use Patti for interpreting and helping to navigate their way around our complicated public school system.

Patti told administrators she's been asked every question imaginable by students and parents trying to understand our colloquialisms, customs and culture.

Her task as teacher for the children, ranging in age from kindergarten to high school, is to help them with both BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) for survival on the playground or at the grocery store, as well as CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), or the language we use in the classroom for learning.

My own experience closest to what these children and families face when learning a new language and culture happened several years ago when I spent a couple of weeks visiting my son and his wife working in Uganda, East Africa. While English was a language spoken by many of those I met, Lugandan and Swahili were spoken more frequently.

"Muzungo" (white person) became one of the first words I learned, followed quickly by "Webale nnyo!" (Thank you very much!)

My six years of Spanish didn't help at all, and I was at a loss to understand during the welcoming luncheon and student program held in my honor at one of the primary schools. Since my son and daughter-in-law were always nearby to interpret, I was able to survive and ultimately enjoy the experience, and I've stayed closely connected to friends in that part of the world to this day.

My Ugandan experience was hard in trying to communicate with the world around me, so I can't begin to imagine how difficult our ESL students and families have to work to become fully integrated into our English language and culture. My admiration for them, and for the work Patti Kuenzie does every day to help them, has risen sharply.

Webale nnyo, students! Webale nnyo, Patti!

Tusanyuse okubalaba! (We are very glad you're here!)