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Mahmoud Omer, left, gets help with his math worksheet from Cathy Nilles, a teacher in the English Learner program, during a class April 29 at the Willmar Middle School. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Newcomer students finding their way in Willmar

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WILLMAR — The English Learner classroom at Willmar Senior High was quiet, as students worked on learning to count money.

Using plastic dimes, nickels and quarters, they counted up to 42 cents, 36 cents, 67 cents, depending on the card they had from teacher Andrew Schultz.

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By coincidence, a larger group of English Learner students at Willmar Middle School were learning math with coins on the same day. Those students were adding columns of numbers after calculating the value of coins pictured on a worksheet. They were younger, and the room wasn’t nearly as quiet.

As she spoke about the class assignment, teacher Cathy Nilles peppered her instructions with phrases like “Look at me,” and “Shh, we’re talking too much.” She wasn’t harsh, and the smile on her face rarely faded. She used students’ names often as she spoke with them, and she also sprinkled in some nicknames as she circulated around the room, calling students “Honeybun,” “Sweetie” and “Honey.”

When Nilles asked questions, a few students raised their hands, while many just blurted out their answers. “Don’t shout at me, please,” she said. “Raise your hand.”

Students in the classroom said they like Nilles and think she’s a good teacher. Learning English is hard, though, some said.

After class, Nilles and Schultz said they enjoy working with the students who are newcomers to Willmar’s schools. In most cases, students who are classified as newcomers are new to the United States and arrive knowing almost no English. In some cases, they’ve never attended school before.

Schultz said it’s rewarding to see how quickly his students catch on, and he enjoys watching them advance.

“In their language they already do know some of these things,” Schultz said, but they need to learn how to do it in English.

What some people might see as disruption in class Nilles sees quite differently.

“One of their greatest strengths is their enthusiasm,” she said. “They all want to do it and get it done and get it right.”

Her greatest challenge at times is to deal with students with such varied needs, she said. The math abilities in the classroom may range from the first-grade level on up. Some need more practice and review than others.

She returned to her love of the students, their enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. “I can see where my teaching paid off,” she said. “With these guys, it’s more tangible.”

Classrooms like these are home to a growing number of newcomers in Willmar.

Dealing with the influx in recent years has presented challenges for the district. English Learner Coordinator Jenni Gunga has proposed some changes for the next school year to deal with growing class sizes. The changes include adding staff and adjusting schedules to handle the high-need population.

A major challenge has been dealing with the wide range of academic experience and language proficiency seen among the newcomers.

“Some can have a lower language proficiency but a higher math proficiency,” Gunga said. “Some have been to school already.” For others, Willmar’s school buildings are the first they’ve ever seen.

Children in immigrant or refugee families face challenges beyond learning a new language, Gunga said.

Sometimes children may be living temporarily with relatives and not with their parents. Parents may be working shifts that leave them little time in a day to connect with their kids.

Poverty is an issue for many students in Willmar, including the immigrants or refugees.

An added stressor for families is having one or more parents who are unable to work in their fields.

At the Senior High, Gunga has installed two teachers licensed for elementary school to work with newcomers. “Their background and skills are applicable to (students’) needs,” she said. Schultz is one of the elementary teachers.

 “When everything you know gets changed really abruptly,” adjustment is very hard, Gunga said. Even fruits and vegetables taste different, she said, and a Midwestern diet is vastly different from what they knew in the past.

One of the big challenges for newcomers is learning how to act in a classroom. The cultural norms of waiting in line, sitting quietly, and listening to teachers may be totally unfamiliar to teenagers who have never gone to school. Those challenges were evident during a visit to Nilles’ classroom.

The English Learner program has a total of 847 students, about 20 percent of the school district’s enrollment, but that includes students at all levels of proficiency. Newcomers are a small, growing portion of that total. Many of these students are from east Africa, but not all of them. Some are from Central or South America or from other parts of the world.

English Learner students spend anywhere from an hour a day to their entire day in specialized English Learner classes, depending on their level of general education and their mastery of English.  

The state of Minnesota provides funding for English Learner students for five years after their arrival, and the Legislature is talking about increasing that to six.

Gunga recently told the Willmar School Board that students can learn to converse in English within a couple years, but they need a much deeper understanding of the language to be able to read a high school science textbook. That level of fluency can take five to seven years, or longer.

The school district spends about $1.9 million a year on English Learner services at all levels, said Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington, about 4 percent of the district’s general fund budget.

The state provides about $579,000 for English Learner, about one-third of the total spent. The district also receives basic per-pupil aid of about $5,300 per student for all of its 4,100 students.

The additional state funding “really helps us with the complete newcomers, new to the country and new to school,” Harrington said.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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