Schools look to fill language gap

FAIRMONT — With a current total of 61 students at the Fairmont Elementary School being serviced by its one ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, the school is in need of additional teachers to service the needs of the students. With the changing demographic and families moving into the area for work or other reasons who may not speak english, it’s important that the needs of the community and of the students are met.

One option was to recruit an additional ELL teacher at the elementary school. Another option is to pay to have seven elementary teachers, one per grade level, obtain their ELL license.

There are two Minnesota universities that offer an online ELL licensure program. Each program requires approximately 24 ELL credits at a cost of $12,000. However, based on individual teacher transcripts, fewer credits may be required.

Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joe Brown reported that there are currently five Fairmont Elementary School teachers interested in taking the classes to get their license because they understand that there’s a great need.

“If we ask you to get certified in an area that you’re not certified in and you do it, then we pay for the tuition and registration fees and any books. The only thing we require in return is that you teach for us for five more years,” said Brown, explaining that any year that’s not fulfilled, the teacher will need to pay back the school 20 percent per year.

Brown said that having seven teachers get certified is the better approach because it would be a one time cost of at most $84,000, whereas hiring a new teacher would be nearly $60,000 a year with benefits.

“Our school can’t just be a seven hour a day school. It has to be a school district that works closely with our community and the needs of our community. There’s a huge advantage of workers that come into our region that can speak english, and we want to help them do that,” Brown explained, adding that the school district wants to be proactive and ready to service the needs of the students.

One Fairmont Elementary first grade teacher, Krysten Walters, has a good number of ELL students in her class. Walters started inviting her ELL students to stay after school an extra hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to work on a computer math program called IXL. For the last 15 minutes of that hour, Walters welcomes the student’s parents to come in and work with them and reported that a good number of parents come for that.

“We have a great faculty and Krysten is one of the special ones. She identified a need and works well with the students and parents,” Brown said.

The Fairmont Jr. Sr. High School also has 32 ELL students and one full-time ELL teacher.

High School Spanish teacher Melinda Stewart recently began teaching Spanish to interested faculty and staff.

“Some staff members came to me earlier this year as our demographics are changing, they came and asked if I would consider teaching Spanish to adults so that they could bridge the gap and communicate more effectively with both the students they have in class and the parents of the students. I started asking around to see if there was an interest and administration was supportive,” Stewart said.

Stewart reported that on Wednesdays from 3:30-5 p.m. those interested come in to learn Spanish for communicative purposes. Paraprofessionals, teachers, secretaries, nurses, and social workers have all come from time to time to pick up phrases and work on being able to better communicate.

“They’re working to build those relationships so that everyone who walks through our building truly feels like they are valued,” Stewart explained.

“In order for any student to have success, it really is about ‘it takes a village’ and not only is it about being successful in school but contributing to the community as a whole and developing great citizens,” Stewart said.

Stewart said that each week, different students stay after to help her and that it’s been fun for the students to see the adults learning.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about that is a struggle for some students that have grown up here and gone through our system is that for some of them who are from bilingual homes, if their parents are not bilingual, it becomes difficult because the students speak the language of the school but the parents don’t. So to communicate and have those parents feel confident in what they’re helping their students do to have success in school changes the family dynamic and we want to work on maintaining those relationships,” Stewart explained.

As Brown and Stewart both explained, this needs to be a whole community focus. Community Education and Recreation (CER) has a program that’s been going on, Adult Basic Education and one of the classes they offer is learn english. There are daytime and evening classes available at no charge in which people will learn reading, writing and conversing, among some other skills.

“In our community we have to work together. The Adult Basic Education class encourages people to learn english, and that’s to their advantage. By us being proactive and getting more teaches trained in this area, and the fact that we’re willing to paying for it is a great investment and we hope that by doing this, it will better serve all of our kids,” Brown said.