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Willmar Schools realigning program for English Learners to serve greater number of students

WILLMAR — The number of newcomer students with no English skills and little or no school experience is growing in the Willmar School District.

Jenni Gunga, coordinator of English Learner and Gifted/Talented programs, presented a report on the program at this week’s Willmar School Board meeting.

Willmar’s 2014 enrollment shows that about 20 percent of the district’s 4,100 students are English Learners. Statewide, the percentage of English Learners is 8 percent.

Most of the students are Somali or Latino, but the district works with students speaking many other languages, too.

The number of English Learner students could continue to climb, Gunga said, as newcomers continue to arrive.

The Middle School and Senior High have been challenged by the level of new students with no English skills and no school experience.

Class sizes for some of those students are too large, Gunga said, and she will be recommending adding to the English Learner staff at both buildings.

In the elementary schools, she will recommend keeping staffing the same at seven teachers in each school. She said she would recommend adding a teacher at the Senior High and two at the Middle School.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he and Gunga would be looking into finding outside resources to help pay for the increased staff.

The challenges vary with the students, she said. Students who do not speak English but have attended school in their native countries have fewer challenges than those who have never attended school.

Willmar Senior High has some Somali refugee students who arrive here in their teens with no school experience, she said. Those students need more support and attention to deal with their lack of basic skills along with their need to learn English.

Gunga said she has worked on a plan to realign the English Learner program to address the growing needs and to smooth out some differences in service between buildings.

In doing that, she said, she found many issues that were causing the differences.

“Space is a big problem,” she said. “Some spaces we are in now are not suitable.” For example, she said, some groups meet in the back of a classroom and need to whisper.

Others meet in small spaces, limiting the number of people who can be there. Some students don’t get as much time as they need because of space issues, either, she said.

One solution she’s found is to have English Learner classes meet in classrooms that are open during another teacher’s prep time, she said.

The concern with space and class sizes is that students’ problems need to be addressed early so that they can advance and move out of the English Learner classification.

State funding for English Learner students is guaranteed only for the first three years a student is learning English. While that’s enough time to learn how to carry on a conversation, many students need five to seven years to become comfortable with the academic language of textbooks, she said.

Board member Nathan Streed asked if the district could offer some services after school for the students.

Gunga said the state requires that English Learner services be provided during the day, but the district could provide additional instruction after school.

“If we could offer more services, it seems like that would be a goal,” Streed said.

Gunga agreed, but said a challenge of doing that would be finding a way to accommodate a wide variety of ages and language levels at an after-school program.

She also hopes to “start spreading the responsibility” to give more support for English Learner students in elementary school.

“We can’t put the entire burden on EL teachers,” she said. “It needs to be the whole building that takes responsibility.”

Gunga said she plans to share ideas with classroom teachers for working with English Learner students. Math and science teachers will be working with English Learner students sooner than they have in the past, too.  

Asked if that wouldn’t be adding more responsibility on teachers, Gunga said she would provide “strategies for all struggling learners.”

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

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