Rural school adapts to population with little English

Story highlights

  • Iowa community has many English language learners in its schools
  • Teachers have to add more background to lessons
  • Students are behind in schoolwork and have limited vocabulary
  • 11% of such children are in rural schools
This rural community in the southeast corner of Iowa is one of the last places you would expect to find a large number of students who don't speak English, yet English language learners have had a huge effect on the schools there, according to Columbus Community Schools Superintendent Rich Bridenstine.
Nationally, 9% of students in the U.S. are considered to have limited proficiency in English, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 11% of those students attend school in rural settings like Columbus Junction. A quarter of the Columbus Community School students are English language learners, a large enough number to have an impact on the classrooms.
Bridenstine sees a difference between a child who can speak general English and one who has the academic English skills required to get through school.
"The English language learners don't have vocabularies big enough to learn at the rate and speed they need to -- that their native English-speaking counterparts do," Bridenstine said.
Columbus Community Schools is a majority-minority school district that pulls in students from Columbus Junction and four other nearby communities. Bridenstine says 66% of the 895 students are Hispanic and 31% are white.
The largest employer in Columbus Junction is a Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant, which employs a high number of Hispanics, and more recently some Burmese. The children of those employees attend the schools there.
"Many of our young people come to us academically behind. Their vocabularies are very limited," Bridenstine said. "Their parents often don't have high school educations either."
English language learners put a strain on school systems, according to Elena Silva of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
"Teachers across the board are not trained or well-prepared for this population," she said. "We need a population of teachers that are prepared to teach students who are in the process of developing their language skills."
Rural schools in particular have difficulty with English language learners, according to Silva.
"They simply don't have the resources, training, funding and infrastructure to support English language learners," she said.
The ELL students also have different cultural experiences, so teachers in Columbus Junction have adapted by teaching more background.
"It's taking what you know about a subject as a teacher and not presupposing that other kids have the same background that you think they should have," Bridenstine said.
To help with the language skills, the teachers in Columbus Junction are encouraged to have students explain what they have learned to a student partner using English.
"We are making gains, but it isn't enough with what No Child Left Behind is requiring of us," Bridenstine said.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to reach 100% proficiency in math and English by the year 2014.
The immigrants do provide some definite advantages, according to Bridenstine.
"The immediate benefit is financial. Without our Hispanics and coming Burmese, we would be a school district probably around 300 or 400, looking at consolidation," he said. Columbus is currently the largest school district in its county.
"We are blessed with a tapestry of diversity and there are a lot of people in the community that treasure that," Bridenstine added.