Language needs increasing for county school system

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 7, 2006

If communicating with a class full of kindergartners wasn&8217;t tough enough, passing on the simplest instructions often required a trip to the Spanish dictionary for Melody Arledge.

The teacher at Columbiana&8217;s Elvin Hill Elementary School faced a new challenge when she began the school year with four students whose primary language was Spanish.

&8220;When a few of those had enrolled, from what I understand, they had less than a week of exposure to English,&8221; she said.

With little command over their native tongue, Arledge hit the books to learn some basic words and phrases necessary to keep a connection with each of her students.

&8220;I had to learn some Spanish just to communicate with my classroom,&8221; she said.

Classrooms like Arledge&8217;s, where English-speaking students sit side-by-side with kids who might hear and speak the language only at school, are becoming increasingly common in the Shelby County school system.

County schools are home to more than 1,500 English Language Learners (ELL), more than any other system in the state, according to program specialist Leah Dobbs Black.

It has been Black&8217;s job to keep up with the growing need for English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction as Hispanic and other populations continue to explode into Shelby County.

&8220;Our goal is to help our students attain English proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in both social and academic areas,&8221; Black said.

With a mixture of funding from the school board and state and federal allocations, Black leads a group of 47 English language teachers who work with individual students at each school for as long as two hours each day.

Participating students are identified for the program through an assessment during the school registration process and span from the elementary to high school level.

While most of the instruction occurs outside the traditional classroom, ESL teachers are also responsible for coordinating with their students&8217; everyday teachers.

&8220;It presents challenges,&8221; Arledge said. &8220;But on the other hand it presents some opportunities.&8221;

Arledge has taken the program a step further. She uses a 30-minute block each week to teach her class a Spanish mini-lesson.

&8220;The most impressive thing to me is that my English-speaking students have picked up enough to communicate with my (ESL students) in Spanish,&8221; Arledge said.

And as her ESL students become increasingly exposed to the English language in both academic and social settings, Arledge says she finds herself using less Spanish during classroom instruction as the school year continues.

&8220;We have had English Language Learners since the late &8217;90s,&8221; Black said, &8220;But that growth really started escalating in the 1999-2000 school year.

&8220;We have grown by several hundred students each year.&8221;

Most of that growth has occurred in the northern part of the county &8212; particularly the Pelham area, which is home to nearly 30 percent of the students in the program.

Alabaster ranks second with Oak Mountain coming in at third.

ESL teachers work with students in about 60 languages, Black said, with Spanish-speaking students accounting for nearly 80 percent of those enrolled in the program.

Others include Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese