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Learning the lingo

Estrella awards honors efforts of student learning English as a second language

Posted: April 1, 2009 1:38 a.m.
Updated: April 1, 2009 4:59 a.m.

Paloma Lopez practices forming sentences using a projected image as part of her course work at Mint Canyon Elementary School Friday. The Estrella Awards recognize students who achieve proficiency in English.


For two years, Mint Canyon Community School student Yesenia Batres struggled to understand her teacher.

A native Spanish speaker, Batres, 11, was classified as an English-language learner in third-grade and began receiving extra instruction from her teacher.

Now in fifth-grade, Batres is able to communicate and get her work done.

“It helps me understand what people say,” she said about her newfound English skills.

It’s a situation to which 10-year-old Jasmine Alzagaz can relate. She enrolled  at Mint Canyon as an English-language learner in the middle of fourth grade.

Now, she says, “I can do my work and (I) talk as much as I can.”

Batres and Alzagaz were two of 69 Sulphur Springs School District students honored during the second annual Estrella Awards last week. The awards celebrate English-language learners deemed English proficient by the district.

The award ceremony began in 2008 as a way to salute the efforts of the English-language learners and their families.

“We realized that we weren’t recognizing the achievements of our English-language learners,” said Marianne Hamor, categorical programs administrator for the district.

The program is especially important because students who become proficient in English are much better able to keep up with their English-speaking peers academically.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment for them,” Mint Canyon Principal Betsy Letzo said.

Students find important social benefits as well. “I’ve made more friends now that I could talk,” 10-year-old Jonathan Guittirez said.

Throughout their English-learning process, students are encouraged to continue speaking their home language, Letzo said.

The result is hundreds of bilingual elementary-aged students.

“They know two languages and it’s quite an achievement,” Hamor said.

It’s a thought Letzo echoed.

“To be bilingual in this day and age is an asset we want them to have,” Letzo said.

Of the nine Sulphur Springs School District schools, Canyon Springs, Mint Canyon, Leona Cox and Valley View community schools have the highest percentage of English-language learners, Hamor said.

More than 200 Mint Canyon students, or 40 percent of the school’s population, are considered English-language learners, Letzo said.

“We have 1,300 English-language learners in our school district,” Hamor said. The district has a total of about 5,700 students.

Sulphur Springs represents students from 30 different countries, she said. While English-language learners are primarily Hispanic, as many as 28 different languages are spoken by the elementary-aged students, she said.

The number of immigrant students, known to the district as students who have been in the United States for less than three years, was on a steady increase until this year.

The number of students classified as immigrant students totals about 160. That’s a drop from roughly 200 immigrant students in 2008, Hamor said.

At Mint Canyon, every student receives an hour of targeted and intense language instruction on a daily basis, Letzo said.
English-language students get an extra half hour of small-group instruction daily. It typically focuses on language development.

“They will use English-language time for front-loading instructions,” Letzo said.

The outreach to non-English-speaking students begins when students entering the school district go through testing to determine their level of English proficiency.

Students who are identified as English-language learners are placed in classrooms led by teachers certificated to teach a second language, Hamor said.

Once a year, students undergo state testing to assess English-language skills to determine their proficiency levels.

Getting the kids up to English proficiency can take anywhere from three to seven years, Hamor said.

“We try to reclassify as many students as we can in elementary school,” she said.



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