School board hears about ELL challenges

Members of the Sioux Center Community School District Board of Education heard about the significant needs of English language learner students at the middle school and high school.

SIOUX CENTERSioux Center Middle School principal Jill Hulshof and Sioux Center High School principal Brent Town are seeing a large number of English language learner students in the buildings this year.

Hulshof informed the Sioux Center Community School District Board of Education at its regular monthly meeting Monday, Sept. 16, that a new sheltered instruction program began at the middle school last year as a way to meet these students’ educational needs. It features three instructors who teach these students with more significant language and education needs in a separate setting from the regular classroom.

“We teach them English, but we do it through content,” Hulshof said. “So, we have a science teacher, a math teacher and a social studies teacher, classroom teachers.”

The middle school provides this specialized instruction for at a maximum of a year and a half for each student. When they’re done, they are able to join their peers in the classroom.

She said the program was successful last year, and they’re eager to offer it again this year.

Last year, the program started with three students, and they finished the year with 19 students.

“That’s how much our newcomer program grew,” Hulshof said. “This year, we’re starting with 24. … We don’t know quite where we’ll end up.”

Some of those original 19 students are continuing in the program, while others have moved out of it.

All faculty take this program seriously, she added.

“If we were to see a student bleeding, every one of us would stop to help that student and do everything we could for that student,” Hulshof said. “That’s our ELL kids. We’re trying to look at those kids with urgency.”

Part of what they’re doing to help these students includes modifying class materials to better suit the skill and educational level of the student, which can vary considerably from student to student.

“We have students who come into our newcomer program who are unschooled in even how to hold a pencil,” Hulshof said.

There have been other students who have no letter or number recognition skills.

“The needs and that skill gap can be massive; bigger than I’ve ever seen,” Hulshof said.

Despite the challenge, staff members are invested in these children.

Town agreed that good work is being done to help ELL students at the middle and high schools.

“I can go into any class in the high school and see our ELL population, our newcomers, but I’ve never seen them so comfortable and in their element as they are in this program,” Town said. “You really get to see what they’re capable of.”

Town added that one way the high school has been trying to assist ELL students is with an ELL ambassador program.

“When a newcomer arrives, we’re going to have specific bilingual students who are going to be that go-to for that kid,” Town said. “There are so many things we take for granted that our kids know. Going through the lunch line, how to pay when you go through the lunch line, going through their schedule, what’s Warrior Time, even sporting events.”

This is a way to help ease ELL students into the school on a more personal level, allowing them acclimate to the school’s setting with someone their own age to guide them.